The Atlantic has posted an interview with historian William V. Harris, of Columbia University, on mental illness in the Ancient world. Harris is also the author of the edited volume, Mental Disorders in the Classical World. In the Atlantic interview Harris – a specialist on the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds more generally – emphasizes changing conceptions of mental illness over time, as well as early efforts to medicalized mental illness. As he notes,
Many people in antiquity thought that mental disorders came from the gods. The Greek gods are a touchy lot, quick to take offense. For instance, they took a hard line with Orestes after his matricide. [Ed. Note: After killing his mother, Orestes was tormented by the Furies.] And in a world where many important phenomena such as mental illness were not readily explicable, the whims of the gods were the fallback explanation.
Physicians and others fought against this idea from an early date (the 5th century B.C.), giving physiological explanations instead. Many people sought magical/religious remedies—such as going to spend the night in a temple of the healing god Asclepius, in the hope that he would work a cure or tell you how to get cured—[while physicians sought] mainly medical ones. No one thought that it was the duty of the state to care for the insane. Either their families looked after them, or they ended up on the street—a nightmare situation.
The full interview can be read online here.
BBC Radio 4 has just aired an episode on the history of mental illness. The episode, Mad Houses, explores three museums of madness in Europe in anticipation of the establishment of a museum of mental illness at Bedlam Hospital in the coming years.
As described on Radio 4’s website,
Ken Arnold explores how three European countries variously tell the history of mental illness. What do museums of madness tell us about who we were and who we are? Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, visits three of Europe’s old ‘mad houses’ that are now museums in Aarhus in Denmark, Haarlem in the Netherlands and Ghent in Belgium. Two of these institutions still function as psychiatric hospitals. Each has unusual, beautiful and terrifying objects on show ranging from straight-jackets to lobotomy tools, and also collections of ‘outsider art’, but each is also strikingly successful at evoking for their visitors different (and sometimes wildly different) views of madness – strange, worrisome, extreme mental states.
Ranging from a pitch-dark solitary confinement cell to the brightly coloured papier-mache dolls made by long term inmates, from the era of shackles to the era of the talking cure, the history of Europe’s reaction to the madness in its midst as shown by these museums is long and still shifting. Britain doesn’t yet have a national museum of mental illness or psychiatry. Bedlam Hospital in London will take on this role in years to come. What might we learn from the mad houses of Europe?
The episode can be heard online here.
The July 2012 issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences is now online. Included in this issue are two articles that tackle the history of mental health. The first article describes the work of Arthur Hurst who filmed soldiers suffering from shell shock post World War I. Further films by Hurst were used to convey the message that these soldiers could be “cured” with relative ease. The second mental health related article in this issue explores the relationship between mentally ill smokers and the tobacco industry, including efforts to cast smoking as an activity with positive effects for the mentally ill. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“War Neuroses and Arthur Hurst: A Pioneering Medical Film about the Treatment of Psychiatric Battle Casualties,” by Edgar Jones. The abstract reads,
From 1917 to 1918, Major Arthur Hurst filmed shell-shocked patients home from the war in France. Funded by the Medical Research Committee, and using Pathé cameramen, he recorded soldiers who suffered from intractable movement disorders as they underwent treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley and undertook programs of occupational therapy at Seale Hayne in Devon. As one of the earliest UK medical films, Hurst’s efforts may have drawn inspiration from the official documentary of the Battle of the Somme and films made in 1916 by French Army neurologists. Although initially motivated to make use of a novel medium to illustrate lectures, Hurst was alert to the wider appeal of the motion picture and saw an opportunity to position himself in the postwar medical hierarchy. Some “before treatment” shots were reenacted for the camera. Hurst, like some other shell shock doctors, openly used deception as a therapeutic measure. On the basis that the ends justified the means, they defended this procedure as ethical. Clinicians also took advantage of changes in military regulations to address functional symptoms. Claims made of “cures” in the film and associated publications by Hurst were challenged by other doctors treating shell shock. The absence of follow-up data and evidence from war pension files suggested that Hurst may have overstated the effectiveness of his methods. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in the film that chronic cases could be treated in a single session had a powerful resonance for ambitious or charismatic doctors and was revived in World War II.
“Scientific Research and Corporate Influence: Smoking, Mental Illness, and the Tobacco Industry,” by Laura Hirschbein. The abstract reads, Continue reading Shell Shock Films & Mentally Ill Smokers
The blog H-madness has been posting the syllabi for courses related to madness, mental illness, and psychiatry for the past week or so now. As of today there are 12 syllabi available on their site from professors around the globe. The postings include not only a copy of the syllabus from each course but also some background information about the research interests of the particular professor and how the course came to be developed.
The courses range in focus from survey courses on the history of madness to the history of patients/consumers/survivors to the history of asylums to courses that combine the histories of psychiatry and psychology.