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How Everyone Became DepressedThe Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown$
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Edward Shorter

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199948086

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199948086.001.0001

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The Rise of Nervous Illness

The Rise of Nervous Illness

(p.17) 3 The Rise of Nervous Illness
How Everyone Became Depressed

Edward Shorter

Oxford University Press

It is much better, people think, for the nerves than the mind to be ill. The nerves are physical structures, and heal in the way that all organs of the body heal naturally. Disorders of the mind are frightening because they are so intangible, and, we think, may well lead to insanity rather than recovery. From time out of mind, people have privileged nervous illness over mental illness. From time out of mind, societies have had expressions for the varieties of frets, anxieties, and dyspepsias to which the flesh is heir. In France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one term was “vapours,” a reference from humoral medicine to supposed exhalations of the viscera that would rise in the body to affect the brain. A major apostle was London physician John Purcell, writing in 1702, of “those who have laboured long under this distemper, [who] are oppressed with a dreadful anguish of mind and a deep melancholy, always reflecting on what can perplex, terrify, and disorder them most, so that at last they think their recovery impossible, and are very angry with those who pretend there is any hopes of it.” He emphasized melancholia and anguish, and for him the “vapours” were something more than a mild attack of the frets. But this was not for everyone. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, now 60 and living in exile in Italy, described to her estranged husband in 1749 Italian health care arrangements, and how physicians visited rich and poor alike. “This last article would be very hard if we had as many vapourish ladies as in England, but those imaginary ills are entirely unknown here. When I recollect the vast fortunes raised by doctors amongst us [in England], and the eager pursuit after every new piece of quackery that is introduced, I cannot help thinking there is a fund of credulity in mankind . . . and the money formerly given to monks for the health of the soul is now thrown to doctors for the health of the body, and generally with as little real prospect of success.”

Keywords:   Massachusetts General Hospital, Ticehurst Asylum, chorea, diarrhea, epilepsy, gastrointestinal tract, hydrotherapy, irritable bowel, neurasthenia, psychosis

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