The world of mental disorders or illnesses is complicated. Stigma is alive and well, and even for those who have a disorder, there’s a lot of confusion and false information floating around. However, society has come a long way from the old days, and many conditions no longer exist. This is sometimes because we’ve refined the definition or because the “symptoms” the condition describes aren’t actually signs of mental illnesses at all. Here are some of the mental disorders we don’t recognize anymore:
Throughout history, women are rarely taken seriously. The catch-all term for any kind of mental turmoil was “hysteria.” While many symptoms, like insomnia and anxiety, actually represent signs of real mental illness, doctors also diagnosed women with sexual desires as “hysterics.” If a woman acted in a way that didn’t fit with society, people thought she must be crazy. The concept of hysteria dates back 4,000 years ago, when doctors believed a wandering uterus caused the condition. The word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word “hystera,” which means uterus. As time went on, definitions were refined, and not every woman with a problem was diagnosed with hysteria. Still, it wasn’t until 1980 that the term was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
During the 15th-17th centuries, reports of people believing they were made of glass were not uncommon. King Charles VI of France is the most famous example, and one of the earliest. After a stressful event, he would succumb to a “fit,” and for weeks or even months at a time, he would become a different person. He stopped tending to his hygiene, and wouldn’t even change his clothes, so servants would cut him out of them. While normally an outdoorsman, during these spells he would refuse to move, believing he was made of glass and could shatter.
The delusion started getting reported in huge numbers after this, and some experts theorize it was an example of “social contagion.” After hearing so much about the condition and having a very famous example, people “caught” the delusion. Then, suddenly, no one had it anymore. Because it suddenly stopped being reported after two centuries, “glass delusion” is one of the most unique mental disorders we don’t recognize anymore. It’s as if it simply disappeared.
Science has a racist history. A prime example is the creation of the condition “dysaesthesia aethiopica,” which appeared in the mid-1800’s. It was an imagined condition designed to support slavery, and it basically meant that black people were “unable” to handle freedom. Symptoms included night wandering, sleeping all day, and just causing general trouble. Doctors claimed black people were especially vulnerable to the condition, and the cure was slavery, which gave the black people something to do. The same doctor – Samuel A. Cartwright – also invented a term for slaves who kept running away. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know these are not real disorders.
With mental disorders we don’t recognize anymore, it’s often because experts realized the terms are too vague or broad. For thousands of years, people believed the moon caused any and all types of mental illnesses and even physical diseases. That’s where the term “lunacy” comes from. Aristotle believed it was because the brain was the “moistest” organ and vulnerable to the effects of the moon and tide. While there’s no very little evidence that a full moon affects mental health, the superstition persists. In the US, laws containing the term “lunatic” existed until 2012, when Congress voted to remove it. President Obama signed it into law on December 28th. The moon was not full on that day; it was in its first quarter.
Our understanding of mental disorders and mental health has improved, but it can still be tough to get good treatment. Here’s a list of the best affordable or free resources out there.