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Mood Disorders and the Brain: Depression, Melancholia, and the Historiography of Psychiatry

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
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medhis5503-21 393..399 Medical History, 2011, 55: 393–399 Mood Disorders and the Brain: Depression, Melancholia, and the Historiography of Psychiatry A˚SA JANSSON* Keywords: Mood Disorder; Melancholia; Depression; Wilhelm Griesinger; Mental Reflex Introduction: ‘Mood Disorders’ as Historical Problem Despite the increasingly widespread availability of psychotropics believed to restore biochemical equilibrium in the brains of persons diagnosed with mood disorders,1 the number of people suffering from such medical conditions appears to be increas- ing. According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, ‘by 2020 it is estimated that depression will be the second most common disabling condition in the world’, a figure it derives from the World Health Organization.2 Depression is, it seems, rapidly becoming a global threat. In a trend that is mirrored in much of the West, the number of prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants in the UK has doubled in the last decade and is continuing to rise. The need for a critical perspective on mood disorders is growing. At the start of the millennium, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen lamented the ‘epistemic timidity’ of historians of psychiatry, when they ‘are in fact in a position of saying some- thing of capital importance about the subject of mental illness.’3 Reiterating this, I want to suggest that historians of psychiatry are best suited to provide a critical perspective on mood disorders and that they must continue to broaden and deepen their research field in order to do so. We can begin by considering how the concept of ‘mood disorders’ emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Such a history must also be a history of the � A˚sa Jansson, 2011. * A˚sa Jansson, PhD student, Centre for the History of the Emotions, School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK. Email: [email protected] 1As presently defined in Anglo-American psychiatry, the category ‘mood d

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