Backpacking and Bipolar II. Taking Manic Depression on tour.
“Notice how they don’t yammer on about depression in Africa or anywhere else that’s poor? Man-up! Get a grip!” – Words that scar. Where I lived in the U.K depression is a bi-word for lazy and anyone who lives on an incapacity benefit because of a debilitating mental illness is generally thought of as a fake manipulating the system for an easy life. This post is to say, Goya might not have run a blog about depression, Jackson Pollock might not have been a recipient of a disability pension and Hippocrates may not have had access to Pubmed – But mood disorders have been a part of humanity for as long as we have records of humanity. These diseases are NOT a western, wealthy indulgence – They are a part of the human condition and are likely as old as our species itself.
Mood disorders have been medicalised since the fifth century BC. In ancient Greece Hippocrates was largely credited with a “Treatise on the Sacred Disease”. The sacred disease being epilepsy. He described an imbalance of the humours, involving an excess of black bile, as being the result of “a long labour of the soul”. While the Greeks were mainly concerned with diseases that manifested with readily observable, psychotic symptoms (schizophrenia, epilepsy, substance abuse etc), Hippocrates also gives the following list of symptoms evident when a patient has an excess of black bile:
Sound familiar? The Ancient Greek words for Black Bile were : melaina chole. It is where the ancient and historical label for depression is derived from – Melancholia.
Hippocrates was the earliest recorded proponent of medicalising mood disorders and the damaged mind. His treatments involved exercise, a change in diet but most tellingly – early medications and what he called “Advise and action”, what we would call therapy. He identified the brain as being the centre for emotions and thoughts and can be assigned most of the credit for founding the school of thought that didn’t involve evil spirits, gods or superstitious beliefs about the ‘soul’.
If we assume that possession by evil spirits and maladies of the soul are also direct references to mental illness (As they are in parts of modern day Africa for instance) then we can trace the genesis of our understanding of mental illness to shaman/witchdoctor tools dated as far back as 10000BC, and the ancient Egyptian ideas of caring for the health of your soul.
Now you know, definitively. The next time you have the ‘first world problems’ accusation levelled at you – tell the bearer of that outdated (by thousands of years no less), ignorant and incorrect assumption to go forth and multiply (Edited for polite readers, but you get it). We have evidence of the existence of these diseases before we had the concept of disease; These illnesses were prevalent enough that they caused research and development of treatments more than two thousand years before we had the notion of first, second, third world countries.
I highly recommend the reading of Andrew Solomon’s book – The Noonday Demon. In it he gives a full history of depression. The genesis for the modern day view of depression as a middle class indulgence is also explored in depth. I don’t want to explore the idea here fully, but the following quote should illuminate quite well the pernicious, vile schools of thought that are totally responsible for the growth of modern day stigma.
“The Protestant ascetics of the later eighteenth century attributed depression to society’s decadence and pointed to high rates of the complaint among an aristocracy nostalgic for its past. What had once been a mark of aristocratic sophistication was now the mark of a moral decay and weakness, and the solution was to eviscerate complacency.”
Edmund Burke’s view was that: “melancholy, dejection, despair, and often self-murder, is the consequence of the gloomy view we take of things in this relaxed state of body. The best remedy for all these evils is exercise or labour.”
In his book Solomon assembles a barrage of such quotes that would still the tongue of any thinking detractor (Though we can do nothing about unthinking bigots). His description of the first asylums and of the Protestant dim view on all mental illness is enough to chill the blood. Having read his entire history of depression the quote I agree with most, and I hope you’ll take my word for is:
“Apart from the time of the inquisition, the eighteenth century was probably the worst time in history to suffer from a rough mental disorder”
Reading The Noonday Demon will seriously help ANYONE who struggles to feel justified in their illness. If, like me, your upbringing means you have a dismissive view of your own illness sometimes – this book will arm you to the teeth to dismantle any argument that your illness is somehow your fault or a sign of poor character. It does so by pointing out the exact moment in history when loud-mouthed bigots set the snowball of stigma rolling.
All the best,
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