Some of these psychiatric conditions have evolved over time into common disorders we know today, others have completely disappeared.
Once thought to be the result of religious punishment or demonic possession, mental illness has come a long way. When we think about mental illnesses today, common conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) come to mind. But if you check the history books, you’ll find plenty of once-trendy, now-forgotten mental illnesses.
While some of these old-school conditions have evolved over time into common disorders we know today, others have completely disappeared. Here are six examples of forgotten mental illnesses.
Hysteria: A Female Mental Illness
Hysteria was a once common medical diagnosis for women. In fact, some researchersdescribe hysteria as the “first mental disorder attributable to women.” It was thought to be characterized by extreme emotion, nervousness, faintness, insomnia, and sexual desire, among other symptoms.
“It was a really broad, catch-all diagnosis,” says Margaret Kasimatis, PhD, clinical associate professor at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Symptoms of hysteria can be traced back to texts from 4,000 years ago. “In ancient times, it was thought to be tied to an unhappy uterus,” says Dr. Kasimatis, who has taught abnormal psychology for more than a decade, including historical perspectives on social and cultural views of disorders. In fact, the term hysteria comes from the Greek word hystera, which means womb, or uterus. Hysteria was severe enough to have women admitted with hallucinations, the inability to move their arms or legs, and uncontrollable physical symptoms of anxiety.
Hysteria diagnoses began to decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for various (debated) reasons including misdiagnosis and evolving scientific evidence. The concept of hysteria was removed with the 1980 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III. Now, hysterical symptoms are considered a manifestation of a complex set of disorders including dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder, conversion disorder, and somatization disorder.
Neurasthenia: Predecessor of Chronic Fatigue?
The medical condition neurasthenia was first described in 1869 by American neurologist George Beard. Symptoms of neurasthenia included depression, anxiety,migraines, and insomnia, according to the American Psychological Association. The disorder was thought to be connected to overworking the brain and excessive stress by those in more demanding professional or business roles. Both men and women could be diagnosed with neurasthenia, but treatment depended on their gender. Women with neurasthenia were often prescribed strict bed rest, while men were encouraged to participate in strenuous physical activity and later write about it.
Norman Rosenthal, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and author of The Gift of Adversity, explains that neurasthenia was most likely a predecessor to common illnesses known today.
“Now, these symptoms can be attributed to things like chronic fatigue syndrome, low thyroid function, nutritional deficiencies,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “But back then, they didn’t know these things existed, so it was common for people to be called neurasthenic.”
Neurasthenia diagnoses began to decline following World War I as doctors began to consider it an umbrella term, meaning the symptoms could apply to a variety of mental and physical illnesses.
Soldiers recuperate from battle wounds at a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital in 1864. Some may also have suffered from “soldier’s heart.”
Soldier’s Heart: An Early Version of PTSD
What we now know as PTSD has evolved over time, particularly as it relates to war veterans. During the Civil War, Kasimatis explains, there was a certain amount of empathy for soldiers returning from battle.
“There was an understanding that a lot of these young men came from farms and were not accustomed to battle and saw some pretty horrific things,” she says. As a result, troops would be diagnosed with a condition called soldier’s heart.
But things changed after World War I when it became known as shell shock. “It was a really shameful thing for soldiers to get this diagnosis,” Kasimatis says. “Men were just expected to go to war and not talk about anything when they returned.” It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War that PTSD was recognized as a serious, well-defined mental illness.
The Vapors: A Condition of the More Delicate Sex
The vapors, whose origin is closely related to the term hysteria, was another condition that affected women in the Victorian era. Characterized by fainting, moodiness, anxiousness, and agitation, the vapors was a reflection of the overall societal view of women at the time.
“This was part of women being seen as the more delicate sex and needing to be cared for by a man,” Kasimatis says. It was even believed that the tightness of Victorian women’s corsets contributed to the onset of the vapors.
“Ladies needed to be protected from the stresses of life. They shouldn’t have the pressure of making decisions,” Kasimatis says. “Women were almost treated like children by their husbands in some ways at this time.”
Glass Delusion: Social Contagion Spread by a King
Glass delusion describes a mental illness in which a person believed they were made entirely of glass. Common during the Middle Ages in Europe, the unusual delusion caused people to believe they could be shattered at any moment. King Charles VI of France was an early victim of this disorder. The medieval king reportedly wrapped blankets around him to prevent himself from accidentally breaking. Although anxious about shattering, people affected by the delusion were still considered “normal” and could perform daily functions, reports the BBC.
“It must have really been an awful, anxiety-inducing way to live,” Kasimatis says. The delusion was quite common throughout Europe for about 200 years — from the 15th to the 17th century. Some experts hypothesize that the delusion had elements of social contagion. With a huge wave of people thinking they’re brittle, it’s almost as if it was the popular delusion to have at the time, Rosenthal says.
“You’ve got this famous figure in King Charles VI having this delusion that he’s made of glass, and sometimes delusions can be almost a little bit contagious,” Kasimatis explains.
Drapetomania: A Desire to Be Free
In 1851 Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a Louisiana surgeon and psychologist, wrote an articleabout two conditions affecting African-Americans, reports PBS. Drapetomania — described as a disease that caused African-American slaves to flee slavery — was one of those conditions.
“There are some really ugly parts of history concerning psychiatric illnesses,” Kasimatis says. “It was a way of justifying slaves who were unhappy, slaves who were ‘lazy,’ and slaves who wanted to escape their situation.”
In his article, Cartwright explained how to deal with slaves exhibiting drapetomania symptoms. “When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them,” Cartwright wrote.
Today, it’s widely recognized that the “illnesses” described by Cartwright were rooted in racism and not science.