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Mental Illness in the Dark Ages

The Middle Ages in Europe was a time of famine, poverty, destruction and chaos.  In such troubled times, the Christian Church rised to become the greatest force in people’s lives, with their promise of blissful eternity in Heaven and punishment in Hell to those who did not follow them. The church had their own way of reinforcing certain beliefs, rules and ways of grouping that determined what was ok to do, and what was not.  They had the voice in many aspects, including people’s behavior and mental well-being.  Since olden times, humans have been categorizing certain behaviors as normal and others as abnormal. Nowadays, when an individual is behaving in a certain abnormal way, let’s say, extremely sad or claiming to hear voices, he or she would probably be taken to see a psychologist.  Thousands of years ago though, psychologists were not around and when individuals acted in a distinct or abnormal way, they were considered to be possessed; either by a demon, evil spirits or witchcraft.  Many believed, especially the Christian Church, that if the possessed or mad individual went under exorcism, they would return to their natural state.  Exorcism, which is a religious and spiritual practice for removing and purifying an individual that has been possessed, is one of the least harmful treatments and is still used today. Other “sane” treatments included: trying to convince the demon out, insulting the demon until it left the body, shaving the pattern of a cross in the head-hair and even hearing mass. Those who only showed “temporary purification” or were not succesful in having the demon out of their body were subjected to many forms of torture like being tied, beaten, immmersed in hot water or being sprayed with extremely cold water, a process called hydrotherapy. The point was to make the individual so uncomfortable that even the demon would want to leave their body.

There have been other forms of eliminating evil spirits that have been used since prehistoric times.  It was a process called Trepanning or trepanation. Trepanning comes from the Greek word trypanon, which means borer; a machine or tool that is used for making holes. The possessed individuals went under intervention by being drilled in the skull, which caused the bad spirits to “boil away”.  This corresponded to the theory of the four humors, which holds that the human body is filled with four substances that are in balance when a person is healthy. When a person falls ill, it means they have an excess or deficit of one of the substances. These substances, or humors, are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.  It was believed that for example, if a person was too aggressive, they probably had an excess of yellow bile. Black bile derives from a Greek word that means melancholy, so when a person was depressed, it would be blamed on excess of black bile.  Trepanning was believed to allow the excess of the humors escape. This process was also used as an emergency surgery after someone had hit their head; they would remove the broken bones from the fracture and clean out the blood under the skull. Trepanning was also thought to cure epileptic seizures and migraines.  


All these processes are part of the Supernatural Model of Abnormal Behavior, which is still used in some parts of the world whose cultures are more superstitious and religiously oriented.  Luckily for us, these ancient practices were replaced with more “humane” models of treatment and we now treat our mentally ill with the respect and dignity they deserve.  


References:1. Laffey, P (2003). “Psychiatric therapy in Georgian Britain”. Psychological Medicine 33 (7): 1285–97.2. Kroll, J.; Bachrach, B. (1984). “Sin and mental illness in the Middle Ages”. Psychological Medicine 14 (3): 507–514.

Images from:http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/283/the-history-of-mental-illness-f…

Marcela Alvarez Alvarez is a 21-year-old psychology student at Albizu University located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. She's the former Campus Correspondent and the founder of Her Campus Albizu. When she graduates, she plans to earn her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Clinical Neuropsychology.  Marcela enjoys reading, listening to k-pop (korean pop music) and watching beauty videos on YouTube. One of her many goals is to start a lifestyle magazine focusing on beauty, fashion, and how it influences mental health.  
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