The Identification of Mental Illnesses Throughout History


By Sanford First

Mental health and mental illness have been a human issue since the beginning of human history, however, it has only been recently that we have begun to further understand this important issue.

The mind is a very complicated subject, and years of study is often needed to even begin to understand the convoluted way that it worked.

We know that a broken bone, for example, will heal if it is set in the correct way, and a set of instructions are followed, however the same set of rules do not always work for the mind, and this makes it more complicated.

Mental Illness Through History

Mental illness has been woefully misunderstood throughout history, with many people suffering awful treatments at the hands of well meaning, but extremely misguided, physicians.

Many mental illnesses were diagnosed as other things, as they were not fully understood, and some people were imprisoned under the guise of medical care, so society could forget about these unfortunate individuals.

Shell Shock

Most people will be familiar with the term shell shock. It was a phrase born of the First World War, and many of the soldiers who came back from that war suffered with some degree of this mental disorder.

This war saw death on a scale that has rarely been seen before, in the four years that the war raged, around forty million people, both military and civilian, died.

The soldiers that had to see this mass slaughter were, of course, traumatised.

Shell shock was the name given to a range of symptoms, from tinnitus, dizziness, tremors, noise phobia, mutism, and dissociative disorders.

We would now recognize many of the symptoms as being PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Shell shock was sometimes attributed to being near to a shell when it had exploded, hence the noise. It is also a lesser known, and sad fact that if the shell shock was attributed to an enemy, for example, being near an enemy shell when it exploded, the soldier was marked as wounded and given a full pension.

If the soldier in question had not been near enemy fire and was suffering with shell shock, they were not considered wounded and no pension was attributed to them.

Many soldiers were unable to fight again, and were often labelled as being cowards, or lacking in moral fiber, and were sometimes handed the white feather that represented cowardice.

These unfortunate people often suffered throughout their lives, and suffered procedures that did little to help, and sadly many men took their own lives, as they were unable to live with this awful mental illness.

PTSD was long written off, but it is worth remembering that without these soldiers, we would understand less about PTSD than we do today.


Hysteria is a condition that was always attributed to women, in fact, the word hystera is the Greek word for uterus. Ancient Greek doctors attributed many issues to a woman's 'wandering uterus' and many horrible treatments were forced on to them in order to have the uterus back in its proper place, in the hope the symptoms would resolve.

During the 19th century, the rise of the colloquially known 'mental hospitals', such as Bethlehem hospital - also known as Bedlam - in London, meant many women were imprisoned for various illnesses that were attributed to hysteria.

We now know that the illness being diagnosed as hysteria was actually a whole variety of illnesses, including epilepsy, anxiety, clinical depression, conversion disorders.

Sometimes, women were labelled as having hysteria if they were against getting married, or if they could not or would not have children, luckily we live in an age where these are no longer considered physiological disorders.

Treatments for hysteria were very varied, with some being extremely unethical. Luckily hysteria no longer considered a diagnosis.


There has been evidence of people suffering with depression for thousands of years, and was known as melancholia.

There have been varying theories on why a person is depressed, such as demonic possession, an excess of black bile and even being cursed by a witch.

Treatments during these times were anything from bloodletting to starvation, which of course, did nothing to help these poor people.

Some early doctors however, attributed depression as arising from the brain and started early forms of behaviour therapy, such as positive reinforcement.

Depression has been poorly understood for much of history, but luckily we now know a lot more about it, and have much more successful, less physical treatments.


Mental illness is not a new phenomenon, but luckily we live in a time where this issue is much less taboo, and help is available to everyone.