We’ve come a long way, crazy…

As recently as the mid-20th Century, psychiatry was in its infancy. A lot of ideas had to be thrown out, shot down and discredited before scientific, medical and therapeutic practice became humane and effective. Therefore it is perhaps normal to note that a few hundred years ago, some pretty whacked out notions were accepted as fact.

Nonetheless, it might surprise you to know just what were believed at the time to be the major causes of mental illness. In 1805, the leading French authority on the subject, Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol published his seminal work; Les Passions considérées comme causes, symptômes et moyens curatifs de l’aliénation mentale.

‘The Passions considered as Causes, Symptoms & Cures of Mental Instability’.

Esquirol essentially believed that all psychological ailments derived from ‘passions within the soul’ rather than from ludicrous notions like hereditary biological conditions or environmental factors. He also was convinced that no form of madness could fully and/or permanently affect a patient’s reason.

Wanna know what the ten most common causes of insanity were, according to this quack?



1. Moving into a new home

Pretty stressful, granted, but would you really believe that such an experience could cause someone to completely lose their shit? Maybe if they’d just moved into the house in Poltergeist, that’s probably the only way this could happen.

2. Squeezing a pimple

So adolescence, basically? Ok, I can buy that. Unless…unless you’re seriously suggesting that the mere act of popping just one spot leads to…ah. That’s exactly what you’re saying. How big would that zit have to be? Is the pus your sanity, in this metaphor-taken-literally? You know what, scratch that. Some things man was not meant to know.

3. Old age

Alright yeah, we kinda still believe this one. Next!

4. Childbirth

Well, there is Post-Natal Depression so…partial credit? Give ya a pass on this one too, Jean-Étienne.

5. The Menstrual Cycle

Not touching this with a fucking barge pole…

6. Shrinkage of haemorrhoids

You just know he was venting, don’t ya; “These things are driving me CRAZY – oh yes, that’ll do…” Only thing is, why would the shrinking, in particular, cause people to go off their rocker? I mean, logically – and I’m using the word ‘logically’ extremely loosely, I know – wouldn’t you become more unhinged the larger the haemorrhoids got? Do…do people with haemorrhoids become insecure if their dangly grapes lose their vim? Urgh. Just… Urgh.

7. Misuse of mercury

Shit, what’s the correct use of mercury? Can you be a bit more specific? I mean, if you eat it then, yeah, madness is probably the least of your worries… Were people snorting the stuff at this time? Using it as an acceptable substitute for salt? We’re talking about a time when lead-based cosmetics were used by fucking everyone, so nothing is beyond the realms of possibility here. Maybe they were using it to beef up their ‘roids…

8. Disappointment in love


9. Masturbation

Wankers are nuts, no doubt. It probably didn’t help that French shrinks were watching them perform the act, though.

10. Bloodletting

‘Sure’, you might think, ‘Self-harm is a signifier of torment and distress, they were on to something there.’ Ah, but you see, standard practice at the time was to treat individuals adjudged to be of unsound mind…with bloodletting. So you can imagine the confusion this last entry caused, as the medical community still believed that cutting someone and letting some liquid drain out was a foolproof cure for psychological trauma.

Sums it up, doesn’t it? A bunch of nonsense, and the only objection most psychiatrists in the early 19th century had was that Esquirol was being a bit harsh on the benefits of bloodletting.

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…

About Seba Roux

Gooner, Socialist, Historian, Slacker. That's pretty much all you need to know.
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