From http://www.cchr.org.uk site dedicated to mental health abuses
The theory behind ECT (electro shock therapy) hasn’t advanced beyond that of the ancient Greeks who tried to cure mental problems using convulsive shock created by a drug called hellebore. A revival of ECT occurred in the early part of the 20th Century.
In 1938, Italian psychiatrist Ugo Cerletti developed electro shock treatment for humans, after being inspired by a visit to a slaughterhouse in Rome to observe butchers incapacitating pigs with electric shocks before killing them.
Diagnosing Mental Illness in Ancient Greece and Rome
Gods-given hallucinations and suppressing anger for the greater good: How what’s considered “abnormal” has changed.
THE ATLANTIC / Julie Beck Jan 23, 2014
William V. Harris, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, studies mental illness in the classical world—ancient Rome and Greece. Though the body of knowledge we have at our disposal is still not totally sufficient to understand mental illness today, there’s an added level of difficulty involved in trying to apply today’s knowledge to earlier civilizations. Or in understanding those civilizations’ concepts of mental illness in a time when the gods were thought to be involved in everyday life and hallucinations weren’t something to worry about.
Many people in antiquity thought that mental disorders came from the gods. The Greek gods are a touchy lot, quick to take offense. For instance, they took a hard line with Orestes after his matricide. [Ed. Note: After killing his mother, Orestes was tormented by the Furies.] And in a world where many important phenomena such as mental illness were not readily explicable, the whims of the gods were the fallback explanation.
Physicians and others fought against this idea from an early date (the 5th century B.C.), giving physiological explanations instead. Many people sought magical/religious remedies—such as going to spend the night in a temple of the healing god Asclepius, in the hope that he would work a cure or tell you how to get cured—[while physicians sought] mainly medical ones. No one thought that it was the duty of the state to care for the insane. Either their families looked after them, or they ended up on the street—a nightmare situation.
In the introduction you wrote to Mental Disorders in the Classical World, you talk about “medicalizing mental illness.” When and why did people start to be seen as sick instead of crazy?
One of your older books is about rage—why was anger seen as an illness, or something to be controlled?
It took me about 400 pages to answer this question! Partly because it was seen as dangerous in the state, partly because it was seen as a danger in the family (especially because of slavery), partly later because excessive anger came to be seen as a personal moral failure.
Anger was dangerous to the state above all because it led to political violence, including tyrannical behavior by absolute rulers; dangerous to the family because of its potential to cause feuding and violence (as for slavery, the angry slave-owner could generally treat the slaves as he wished—but they might and did react). The moral idea arises out of these concrete political and social imperatives I think, but it also forms part of the widespread ancient idea that the essence of good behavior is self-control.
Are there difficulties applying today’s conceptions of what is “abnormal” to historical figures? Or vice versa?
There sure are, both ways. The conceptual and moral differences are huge. People have argued that, for example, Herod the Great and Caligula were schizophrenics, but tracing the way they actually behaved is rendered difficult by the inadequate sources [available]. And in the Roman world, a great deal of violence was normal, as was much of what we consider pedophilia. But this makes the work of scholars such as me more interesting as well as more difficult.
Are there any ideas the ancient Greeks or Romans held that would be helpful for us to think about in the discussion surrounding mental illness today?
Yes, as far as neuroses are concerned, see in particular Chris Gill’s contribution to the book I edited, with his emphasis on character. He looks at the idea that we should train our characters so that we are ready for life’s disasters and can face them robustly.