meet my great-great grandparents, christopher and margaretha. they were born in the 1830s and lived until the 1920s.
when they were about 10 years old in 1840, the united states first began keeping a record of mental “disturbances” through the annual census. there were only 2 categories: idiocy or insanity.
by the time my great grandparents were born around the 1870s, the u.s. was about to create seven categories of mental illness to be recorded on the census: mania, melancholia, monomania, paresis, dementia, dipsomania and epilepsy.
my grandparents came along after the turn of the century, around 1915. in 1917, the american medico-psychological association (the future american psychiatric association) created a more extensive system to classify, but not treat, mental illness.
it wasn’t until 1952, 12 years after the birth of my father, that the first diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (dsm) was written and used.
except for my dad, all of these relatives lived on the same farm in the rural midwest. they were all born at home and saw country doctors to meet their medical needs. they were educated in one-room schoolhouses and did not have college degrees. their only outside resource at the time was the local catholic parish. mental health was a field that did not yet exist – if you seemed “abnormal” you were viewed as either an idiot or a lunatic. literally.
considering that i have been diagnosed with depression, my father was diagnosed with depression and died by suicide and his mother, my grandmother, was diagnosed with depression, it’s safe to say that mental illness runs in the family. maybe christopher or margaretha lived with anxiety, or bipolar, or ocd or depression. but nobody talked about it or wrote it down. they had about 10 children, each of which went on to have about 10 children. i wish it were possible to know how many of them struggled through a world with no therapy, no antidepressants and no openness.
the people in my family are hard-working midwesterners. they were the pioneers who built america. they weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. but, as was the case with most people in the 1800s and much of the 1900s, you didn’t show weakness and you didn’t talk about your feelings. (not surprising, considering how you would be labeled if you did show signs of a mental “infirmity”).
it is interesting for me to consider how that family culture has impacted my own willingness to take my depression and anxiety seriously – to actually believe that i have an illness, and not a weakness. that i can’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps and beat the depression through sheer willpower. i wonder if my dad experienced feelings of depression or anxiety as a kid, and if he talk to my grandma about it. what would she have told him? would she have shushed him and changed the subject? told him that we don’t talk about “those things?” were they both secretly afraid that he was crazy or abnormal?
while our society today is far more open about sharing feelings and has come a long way in recognizing mental illness, i have a hunch that there are many of us who still hold back, afraid to verbalize, afraid to be stigmatized. those patterns can be very old, older than we realize. sometimes it feels to me like it is buried deep in my dna, this self-blame and guilt that i feel about being depressed.
at the same time, knowing my family history and putting it in the context of the history of mental health makes me proud of my willingness to talk about my illness. i can channel the work ethic, courage and kindness of my ancestors into my daily efforts to take good care of myself. in today’s world, i will treat my depression and anxiety as what they are – real medical conditions.
Information on the history of the DSM from http://www.psychiatry.org/practice/dsm/dsm-history-of-the-manual