Historical Context: Early Forms Of Treating Mental Illness

March 22, 2012 Alistair McHarg

Those of us who rely on the healthcare system for our peace of mind and ability to lead productive, useful lives, have plenty to say about the state of medicine today. We complain, a lot!

As a group we are complainers by nature, but when it comes to the gyrations we must endure to achieve mental health we can, and do, go on for hours about what is wrong and what is worse and what really cheeses me off and those darn pharma companies and crazy shrinks and chintzy insurance companies and the polecats nesting in my basement, etc.

I would never suggest that finding appropriate, affordable treatment for mental health issues is easy, certainly not. But, I would suggest that healthcare for the mentally ill has never been better, as a quick look in the rear-view mirror will show.

I asked my research department to dig a bit and track down the origins of mental illness treatment; the results may surprise you. Below you will find some examples of early cures that will likely make you especially grateful to be living in these advanced, enlightened times.

In ancient Greece the cure for agoraphobia was opening a sandal stall in the Agora. Regardless of panic or discomfort level, the sufferer had to tough it out until he hit his first profitable month.

In ancient Rome, alcoholics were admitted into a 12-step program that worked like this. The dipsomaniac was placed in the coliseum with a gladiator and given a 12-step head start, after which the gladiator chased him until he swore off the grappa.

In Medieval France it was believed that multiple personality disorder was the result of having one’s personality overpowered by the identity of a powerful animal. Torn between their adulation of snails and deep respect for chickens, at last a practice emerged of forcing the afflicted into a chicken-staring contest. It was believed that, when the afflicted individual could assert dominance over the chicken, order would be restored.

The Vikings, a rough and tumble lot, had a word for bipolar disorder – snergabjord – which it difficult to translate. Essentially it means, “two demented ferrets wrestling inside a burlap bag filled with herring”. The Viking understanding of bipolar disorder was that a person had been split into two people and could only be healed by picking the preferred personality. Consequently, someone struggling with bipolar disorder was forced to wear a bag containing two ferrets over their head until they made up their minds.

In England, two weeks ago, the treatment for clinical depression was the same as it’s been for the past nine centuries. The depressed individual is locked in the basement with a bowl of gruel and told in no uncertain terms that he will be welcome at the table only when he’s all cheered up and fit for polite company.

Eccentric shrinks, miserly insurance companies, meds with wacky side effects – bring it on! 2012 is a great year to be crazy!

APA Reference
McHarg, A. (2012, March 22). Historical Context: Early Forms Of Treating Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 18 from

Author: Alistair McHarg

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