8 Mind-Blowing Facts On How Women’s Mental Health Was Treated Through History
But, that stigma has persisted in a particularly unique way when it comes to women, who have been victimized through accusations of witchcraft, and were often told the only cure for their ailments was to return to their dutiful place in society as a mother, wife and caretaker.
Even if you snoozed through every history class you’ve ever been enrolled in, most of us know the age-old saying: Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Here are eight facts about the history of treating women with mental illness that will blow your freaking mind.
1. The uterus fronted the blame for pretty much all female mental illnesses.
The uterus certainly deserves recognition, because DAMN, IT ACCOMPLISHES A LOT. Unfortunately, though, the uterus had a different kind of spotlight shone on it throughout history.
Back in approximately 1900 BC, the ancient Egyptians were among the first people to attribute the cause of women’s mental disorders to a little thing called “spontaneous uterus movement.”
Basically, people truly believed a woman’s heightened anxiety and distress were due to her “wandering womb.”
Now, I know history had to start somewhere when it comes to tackling complex issues like mental health, but this was a widespread belief that persisted until at least the 16th century, and it fueled stereotypes about women that, honestly, still kind of exist to this day (i.e. women can’t be trusted to be experts on their own bodies).
Also, fun fact: The term “hysteria,” which characterized the first mental disorder attributed to women, comes from “hystera,” the Greek word for uterus.
2. The “cure” for spontaneous uterine movement was all about scents.
Therapeutic measures found in the Ebers Papyrus (a medical document from 1600 BC containing the oldest known references to depressive conditions) suggested the uterus needed to be moved back to its natural position in order for a woman to be cured of her mental illness.
If the uterus lifted upwards, the patient could essentially just inhale some unpleasant smells through her mouth and nostrils, while simultaneously placing scented or perfumed smells near her vagina.
Because, obviously, the vagina is capable of wafting.
In the event the uterus had moved downward from its natural positioning, the Ebers Papyrus recommended placing the harsh, bitter smells near the vagina, and the perfumed smells near the mouth and nostrils.
3. Other cures for women with hysteria sought to strip them of their sexual agency.
A Greek doctor named Melampus was similarly preoccupied with women’s uteruses, believing their psychological issues could be chalked up to “uterine melancholy” and a lack of orgasms.
Laugh at that theory all you want, but Melampus’ ideas actually continued to hold water for future developments in this area for years to come.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, argued that the uterus is unhappy when it cannot join with a man, and thus carry a baby.
Hippocrates also cited an unsettled uterus as the cause of hysteria. He claimed the organ became restless as a result of an inadequate sex life, which, experts suggested, could only be improved within the bounds of marriage.
On the flip side of that, Soranus, a Greek physician from the second century AD, introduced revolutionary cures for hysteria. He argued that, instead of having any sex at all, a woman’s optimum condition consists of perpetual virginity and abstaining from sex.
So, the choices for a mentally ill woman of this time were reduced to either finding a husband who will supposedly screw the mental disorder out of her, or refraining from having any sex whatsoever.
4. A woman’s orgasms were referred to as “hysterical paroxysms.”
If one were to subscribe to the entire idea of hysteria as a real medical condition, then one way to cure the woman, or at least relieve her symptoms, was for her to have an orgasm.
Except, because women are apparently these mystical, enigmatic creatures controlled solely by their uteruses, the orgasm can’t simply be called an orgasm. It had to be medicalized under a ridiculous euphemism: “hysterical paroxysm.”
As far as I can tell, male orgasms were never classified this way, presumably because no one was pointing to male reproductive organs as causes of mental illness.
Language matters, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. The mere fact that a woman’s orgasm had to be shrouded by obscure medical jargon is really, really troubling.
5. There was a time when doctors used sex toys on their patients.
Physicians practicing in Victorian England probably didn’t know it at the time, but they were the pioneers of what we now know to be vibrators.
As if it wasn’t bad enough to medicalize female orgasms down to “hysterical paroxysms,” a woman herself couldn’t possibly be trusted to treat herself to that pleasure.
Instead, the task was left to the (male) doctor, who performed pelvic massages on his female patients.
As most of us know, a pelvic massage (or, if we call it what it really is, fingering a woman) can be quite exhausting, and can lead to hand cramping.
And thus, thanks to Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, the vibrator was born.
As magical as vibrators and other toys are now when it comes to enriching our sex lives, Granville and other physicians of his time clearly weren’t in search of a way to maximize a woman’s pleasure.
It’s important to remember that these methods served as a means of “curing” a woman’s mental illness, but more importantly, it was yet another way of controlling a woman’s sexual agency.
6. For a huge chunk of history, women struggling with mental illness were accused of witchcraft.
And, in countless instances, they were subsequently killed for it.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Salem witch trials, but it seems as if the further we get from that time in history, the less real these events appear to be for us.
For tens of thousands of people (mostly women), many of whom almost certainly struggled with some form of mental illness, it was a horrific reality.
While it’s impossible to get an exact number, modern scholars estimate somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people were executed after being accused of witchcraft, all within the span of a couple hundred years.
Maybe you should take a moment to reflect on those numbers the next time you want to dress up as a sexy witch for Halloween.
7. The word “hysteria” wasn’t removed from the DSM until 1980.
The DSM, which stands for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the go-to authoritative guide when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders.
Again, we can shake our heads all we want at the pseudo-science of hysteria and wandering wombs, but the reality is these theories were only removed from the DSM in 1980.
It took us literal centuries to officially do away with a blatantly preposterous term. If that’s how long it takes to eliminate a simple word from our vocabulary, imagine how long it must take to truly eradicate the stigma lurking behind it.
8. We’re still dealing with the fallout of this stigma to this day.
These are the words that countless women hear when they seek help from medical professionals. Gender stereotypes in the context of mental health are, without a doubt, still alive and well.
And, as Maya Dusenbery, the editorial executive director at Feministing, told ThinkProgress in an interview, the stigma reaches outside the scope of mental illness:
I think it’s the same deeply rooted sexism that we see in other realms, like when it comes to not believing rape survivors. We don’t trust women to be the experts on their own bodies, or to be reliable narrators of their own lives.
But when that comes into the medical system, it’s really dangerous.
Moreover, these issues are exacerbated for women of color.
African American women are reportedly 20 percent more likely than the general population to deal with serious mental health issues, and their immediate community is not always receptive to open discussions of how to treat mental illness.
We have to do better. And we can do better.
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