History of Mental Health 101 is a set of articles that reviews the history of mental health from a sociological perspective: from the ancient to the modern understanding of the concept. Nowadays, mental health is one of the most widely discussed topics; however, it had a hard, alluring history of development through centuries. The following six articles explore the history of mental health and some of the most fascinating and sometimes unbelievable facts about the topic, aiming to raise awareness about mental health and its importance for one’s wellbeing.
History of Mental Health 101: Mental Illnesses and Demons
History of Mental Health 101: Is there a healthy mind in a healthy body?
History of Mental Health 101: Stigmatization of Mental Health
History of Mental Health 101: The First Asylums
History of Mental Health 101: Chlorpromazine and the Drug Revolution
History of Mental Health 101: Deinstitutionalization and Comunity Care
History of Mental Health 101: Mental Health in an Unequal World
Mental Illnesses and Demons
Humankind has spent around six million years on Earth and has achieved countless advancements in every field, from science to the arts. From hunter and gatherer societies struggling with farming and making settlements on Earth, we turned into nowadays civilisation, which is thinking about establishing settlements on different planets. The development has been visible in every aspect of our lives, from material properties to knowledge. However, as usual, it is easier to know your surroundings than yourself. Probably this is the reason why people in different eras were very puzzled by the mystery that is the human mind and behaviour. Our marvellous minds could find the answer to various complex issues and questions, yet were not sophisticated enough to figure out their obscured actions. Human mind and behaviour have always been baffling. In particular, during the days when knowledge of cognitive and mental functions was feeble. Some of the troublesome actions and conducts that our ancestors could not define are classified as mental illnesses in the modern world.
Extraordinary actions by ordinary people have always troubled the minds of many. Early humans could not understand why a healthy, physically intact person would behave or feel in a certain way. The unknown has always been associated with danger and instigated great fear in society. People immediately drew links between the mentally ill and abnormal forces. As they believed, mental illness was a consequence of mystical energies and spirits. Ancient societies were not properly equipped to handle it; therefore, various civilisations fashioned different tools and approaches to solve the problem.
Some of the oldest procedures date back to Neolithic times. The most popular method for curing mental illnesses, trephining (or trepanning), was created in 5000 BCE. Ancient civilisations, some of which were believed to be superior to others, used special skull trephine methods to cure mental illness, which in those days was believed to be the consequence of dark unearthly forces. The procedure was risky. It involved a hole chipped into the skull using special crude stone tools (Foerschner, 2010). As mentioned before, those civilisations considered mental illness as being possessed by demonic powers; therefore, the trephining was not designed to “fix something” in the brain but to create a way out for all these evil forces to leave the head of the affected person. It is worth mentioning that, despite the danger and risks that this technique involved, this custom was actively adopted in many civilisations for a long time. Surprisingly, history keeps records of the people who went through the whole process and survived. If performed with great accuracy and care, this procedure could provide helpful outcomes. However, this required skilled healers and sophisticated tools. It is noteworthy to mention that, as time passed, amateur tools got more advanced and became the inception of skull saws and drills that were used in ancient and medieval medicine (Foerschner, 2010).
Alternatively, civilisations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria took more spiritual and religious measures to solve the problem. Those rituals and ceremonies included exorcism, atonement, incantations prayers, etc. Some other approaches involved threatening the evil or punishing it. Later, some societies started using music and arts as a form of therapy for mental illnesses. Most mentioned rituals were performed by the priest doctor and had a very important meaning for society. Apart from this, mental illness was not blamed on evil forces, but on the individual who was sick. Bad luck or bad health of a person was considered as punishment and a sign of God’s wrath. For instance, Hebrews considered illness as a punishment for their sins. The only way a person could be healed was with the mercy of God. Similar to the societies mentioned above, the ritual for curing the person was held by priests most of the time. They were not only playing the role of a healer but also connecting the person to the god and the sane world (Foerschner, 2010).
In conclusion, mental health is one of the most discussed topics in the 21st century. Various campaigns aim to raise awareness about the issue and stop the stigmatisation of the topic. However, humankind required centuries to reach this point of understanding. Society has been trying to understand the reason behind deviated behaviour for centuries. However, due to different reasons (mostly due to lack of knowledge), ancient civilisations considered mental illness as an unearthly action, a demonic possession, or as God’s wrath. Approaches to curing these extraordinary conditions were different, too. Trephining was one of the most used techniques to cure mental illnesses. As explained above, it involved expelling the evil force from the sick person by creating a hole in the brain. Another prevalent practice was religious rituals held by healer priests. Those rituals included exorcism, prayers, atonement, etc. Some societies believed that sin and wrong life could trigger mental illnesses, which were a symbol of God’s wrath and punishment. Based on this, we can conclude that the understanding and treating mental health was inferior and sometimes even dangerous. The next article of the History of Mental health 101 series will discuss mental illnesses in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and we will explore the famous Greek motto "A healthy mind in a healthy body" (Juvenal, 1814).
Figure 1: Extracting the Stone of Madness. (1600). [Painting]. https://narrativepainting.net/?p=1270
Figure 2: Heironymus Bosch. (1494). Cutting the Stone [Painting]. https://izi.travel/en/51fd-hieronymus-bosch-cutting-the-stone-1494-or-later-prado-madrid/en
Figure 3: Everett Collection. (2014, May 28). Exorcism Of One Possessed By The Devil [Painting]. https://pixels.com/featured/exorcism-of-one-possessed-by-the-devil-everett.html
Foerschner, A. M. (2010, September 1). "The History of Mental Illness: From “Skull Drills” to “Happy Pills.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 2 (09). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1673/the-history-of-mental-illness-from-skull-drills-to-happy-pills
Juvenal (1814) The satires of Juvenal. London, Printed by A. J. Valpy. [Web.] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://lccn.loc.gov/41030935.
Various authors (2014). "Health care practices in ancient Greece: The Hippocratic ideal" J Med Ethics Hist Med, 7 (6). US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263393/