Over the centuries, physicians and philosophers developed mental illness diagnoses as a means of describing behaviors deemed unacceptable to specific groups of people. Some of the bizarre illnesses reflected the ignorance of medical science at the time. Other theories expressed the prejudices of one gender or race toward another. Growth in social and psychological understanding eventually contributed to the dismissal of these concepts of mental illness.
Long before the understanding of hormones or the acceptance female equality, Ancient Greeks considered disagreeable or dominating women as suffering from hysteria. The term originated from “hustera” meaning womb. The famous philosophers Hippocrates and Plato believed that the uterus was the organ responsible for causing any number of symptoms that included everything from cramping and fluid retention to anxiety and insomnia. Physicians commonly diagnosed single women with the condition during medieval times.
By the 19th century, physicians around the world believed that treating hysteria required massaging the genitalia until women experienced orgasm. Though many might find the practice jaw dropping today, health care professionals did not recognize the treatment as sexual gratification. Physicians initially provided the treatment until passing the daunting task onto midwives. During this time, a physician invented the vibrator, which enabled women to achieve symptomatic relief independently.
American physician and psychiatrist Samuel Adolphus Cartwright developed many theories of mental illness that he identified in the black population. The dysaethesia theory meant “abnormal Ethiopian perception.” The mental health condition described what slavery proponents viewed as irresponsible, lazy and uncivilized behavior in Negroes. The racists particularly assigned the diagnosis, also called “rascality” to freed slaves. Viewing the people as childlike and unaware of a need for being managed, the men believed the condition treatable with what society now recognizes as physical abuse.
Cartwright proposed that blacks suffered from the condition because of the color and insensitivity of the skin. Curing the condition required coating the skin with oil after bathing the ailing black individual with soap and water. Ensuring that the skin absorbed the oil required whipping with a leather strap. The final step in the treatment process involved engaging the individual in rigorous manual labor. After enduring the harsh therapy, Cartwright also believed that the individual experienced gratitude for having his/her senses and intellect restored.
Even with modern day research, technology and greater understanding, therapists continue describing variances in human behavior as mental illness. Up until 1973, practitioners considered homosexuality a mental illness and included the condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For centuries before psychiatrists adopted the mental illness theory, many viewed homosexuality as a curable spiritual illness that merely required repentance of sin. Many continue holding this opinion today.
Though activists spent decades fighting for gay acceptance and gay rights, discrimination occurs in many locations around the world, including the United States. Numerous accounts throughout modern history tell the story of someone enduing oppression and sometimes physical violence for having a different sexual preference. Not fitting into what a community, current society or a select few members of the medical community considers normal poses a danger for misdiagnosis, ostracism and ridicule.
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Peter Long is a clinical psychologist and guest author at Best Psychology Degrees, a site with guides and information about online psychology degree programs.