How People Conceptualized Mental
Illness and Its Treatment
Academic psychology and psychoanalysis are essentially brainchildren of the 20th century. Madness, on the other hand, is as old as the human race. Its origins, the causes of mania and depression, have puzzled philosophers, physicians, and theologians throughout history. How people conceptualize mental illness tells us a great deal about how they see themselves. Insanity, after all, is a mirror image—albeit a distorted one—of our hidden self, with all its possibilities. We wonder, what is it that has gone wrong in the melancholic? Is the problem in the mind, the brain, the blood, the bodily organs, or is melancholia due to some supernatural force taking possession of the afflicted person ? The answers to these questions have varied over time and from one culture to another.
In the absence of empirical information about the etiology of mood disorders and other forms of mental illness, society needed theories about the subject in order to devise forms of treatment, punishment, even the annihilation of people suffering from madness. The attitudes towards and the understanding of mental illness have ranged from the entirely empirical to the fantastic and from the purely misanthropic to the truly hu