For the history of psychology class I took this semester, we had to write a paper reflecting on what we learned in class and how it intersects with our own personal experience. From the course outline: “Reflection begins with an experience, builds on the details of that experience, and describes a conclusion or opinion about your own life or life in general that flows from or was sparked by the details you have garnered about yourself, the experience of the character or system and what you know about history.”
I don’t know what my exact grade was, but working backwards from my overall grade for the class and what I know I got on the midterm and the final, I think it earned either an A or an A-. The Psychology department does not have as stringent writing standards as the English department, where I know this would have gotten a B, at best.
I’m not just posting this to get an ego boost and show off how clever I am (though that is part of it), but also because I really, really bombed the midterm for this class, and I will probably have to retake the class to get an acceptable grade. So I’m putting this up here on the internet so that when I do, I’m not tempted to plagiarize myself when I have to write a similar essay a second time.
As someone who has long suffered from depression, I’ve always been interested in how mental illnesses are treated and seen, especially since the general trend of how mental illnesses are perceived has gone in the opposite direction of the way I’ve grown to seeing my own depression. Mental illnesses have gone from being seen as caused by any of a number of external forces to seen as caused by something in the brain; whereas my perception of my depression has gone in the opposite direction — from something that was intrinsically linked to what made me me, to an external force that wreaks havoc on my mental landscape.
The concept of mental illness as something that can be diagnosed and treated just like any other disease is a relatively modern concept. As far back as ancient Greece (King p. 51) and as recently as the early eighteenth century (p. 202), mental disorders were viewed by the medical establishment as supernatural illnesses brought about by demonic possession or divine punishment. Even during the Renaissance, demonology and witch-hunting were both still being practiced across Europe just as strongly, if not stronger, than during the Middle Ages (p. 198).
According to the Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook written to aid in the search for witches, any number of a long laundry list of symptoms were signs of demonic possession or collaboration with the devil —”loss of sensory functions, loss of motor functions, mental disorganisation, pain, somnambulism, epilepsy, and death” (p. 199). Because of the vagueness and wide-ranging symptoms described in the Malleus, almost anyone could be successfully accused of witchcraft, and because of wide-spread anti-witch paranoia, even the accusation of witchcraft was enough to whip up a frenzied mob that would take the law into their own hands (p. 199). Tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of individuals were believed to have been executed for witchcraft (p. 200).
Even being sceptical about witchcraft, as was a sixteenth century physician who argued that people accused of witchcraft were merely suffering from mental disorders, was enough to have one accused of witchcraft (p. 202).
All of this contributed to witchcraft and the hunt for witches having a firm on the public consciousness of the time. It took centuries and widespread changes in philosophical and metaphysical thought. This was brought about thanks to the work of Spinoza and Descartes, who both challenged the fundamental principles of demonology (p. 202).
But it was not until the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, amidst numerous other radical social reformation movements (p. 202) that movements began to provide humanitarian treatments for individuals with mental illnesses (p. 203).
Two of the most ardent reformers of the mental health system and patient advocates of the time were Philippe Pinel and Dorothea Lynde Dix. Pinel was a French physician who almost single-handedly was responsible for sweeping reforms in French asylums (p. 205), insisting that patients be treated in a humane manner and given proper treatment, and not be tossed into oubliettes and ignored (p. 206).
Pinel’s work was later taken up by the American social reformer Dorothea Dix, who strove to apply his work on a large scale. Thanks to her decades of reform work, she was able to sway the course of popular and legislative opinion and helped undertake sweeping reforms of numerous American asylums (p. 213) that included treating the patients in a humane manner and offering them treatment.
I have been depressed for as long as I can remember; I can’t recall a time when it was not a part of me. I suppose this is also why it took me so long to realise that I was depressed and that this wasn’t a normal (and, more importantly, a healthy) way of thinking. I had always been introverted and melancholic, and I just thought it was something you were born with, like eye colour or hair colour or a birthmark.
The strongest memory I have that there was something wrong, genuinely wrong, inside my head was when I was in CEGEP. It was around the time my parents were divorcing, and I know that must have had an effect on my mood. I don’t even know what brought on this revelation, but I distinctly remember realising at that moment that I felt happy… and that that was not only an extremely unusual feeling for me, but that I also couldn’t remember the last time before that moment that I had felt the same way.
I confided this to a teacher that I trusted, and she talked me into setting up an appointment with the school’s counsellor, and that eventually led me to see a psychiatrist outside of the school for a few months. I’m not sure how much good it really did, but at least at this point I was aware that there was something ‘off’ about me. The subject of medication did come up, but I absolutely refused; my self-image at that point was that I was the Quiet and Sad One, and if I got rid of that, what would be left of me?
I soldiered on like that for several years, but the depression got worse thanks to a number of factors — social isolation and long stretches of unemployment eroded at my self-worth, and they all fed into the others in a vicious circle.
And then one of my friends decided to Do Something.
For New Year’s Eve she took me to a rave with a third friend of ours (already a first for me because I never really went out dancing), and then talked me into taking MDMA with them. I barely drank and had never taken any form of recreational chemical, not even weed, so I was very much out of my comfort zone by this point.
And I’m convinced this is one of the, if not the, smartest thing I did during that time period.
After my brain spent that night being pickled in serotonin, I realised that (a) I was a deeply, deeply unhappy person and that (b) not being depressed didn’t make me not me.
This was a watershed moment for me, and I realised there was something wrong with the way my brain worked, something chemically wrong, and that I needed to get it fixed.
I was, however, still depressed and seriously lacking in motivation, and it did take me over a year and a half before I spoke to a doctor about going on an anti-depressant (triggered by a very scary bout of suicidal ideation). But in spite of that delay, I know that if I never had that breakthrough moment, if I’d never realised it was possible to separate myself from the depression I had so long used to define myself and still stay me, I would still be stuck in that vicious circle of depression, self-hate, and failure.
Though the humanitarian reforms of the treatments of mental illnesses and my own psychological breakthrough proceed in opposite directions — the reformers argued that the source of mental illnesses was not some external power influencing the patient but rather came from the patient themselves; and my breakthrough lead me to see that my depression did not and should not define who I was, and to see it as something outside my personality — the conclusion derived was the same. Because if it isn’t a demon that has set up shop in your skull or the defining characteristic of what makes you you, your mental illness therefore becomes something that can treated, managed, and potentially fixed. (And speaking as someone who’s suffered through an incredible amount of self-hate because of depression, this is very liberating.)
King, D. B., Viney, W., & Woody, W. D. (2009). A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.