Thanks to my favourite podcast, now called “Build for Tomorrow” (formerly Pessimists’ Archive) I have learned that there was a very popular disease in much of the 19th century called “neurasthenia”. Its invention led to all sorts of things being attributed to neurasthenia: including depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headache and high blood pressure. It was associated with lonely farm wives and especially overworked business people.
“Treatments” were typically stays at “rest” hospitals and resorts, although later the idea of electric therapy became popular. One thing was always consistent: No one could identify WHAT the disease actually was. What part(s) of the people was/were actually unwell? Yet it was the “affliction du jour”, especially for the middle and upper middle class, for many decades.
This article from Atlantic Magazine tells the story of this “disease”:
Neurasthenia was a widespread disease until people got tired of it and got tired of not hearing an explanation for what it was. People lived and died entire lifetimes with this word “neurasthenia” in their vocabulary. They were certain they had gotten it right – until it turned out they got it completely wrong.
Just as priests in the Middle Ages blamed emotional struggles on “bodily humours” and doctors in 1870 blamed emotional struggles on “neurasthenia”, in 2021 we blame emotional struggle on “mental illness”. In all of these examples, we have no actual proof the thing we are pointing to even exists and many people are making great profits off these ‘flavour of the month’ cottage industries.
And the arrogant part is how sure we are that we are right. Every generation thinks they have “got it right” and points to all the scholars and practitioners who have bought into whatever the current “big lie” is. 100 years from now, if we still have podcasts, perhaps people will be chuckling that an entire world of people bought into a belief, with NO evidence presented, that the struggles they have are caused by their minds being ill. Aside from the obvious part that the mind is a metaphor that doesn’t really exist and therefore cannot be unwell, we all embrace the idea that how we feel emotionally or psychologically is somehow a health issue: “mental health”.
Just as the masses in the Middle Ages would have done well to consider bodily humours with a grain of salt, and the masses in the 19th century might have done well to be a bit skeptical of neurasthenia, we might do well to step back from our current “big lie” and analyse for ourselves whether this concept of “mental illness” resonates with us, regardless of how many others have bought in.
Maybe all of human culture has struggled to recognise that we are all beautifully different and someone is neither a demon, a neurasthenic or a victim of mental illness, just because they don’t fit in with the “normal majority”. If we knew different was beautiful, we could celebrate each other rather than label each other.