History of Medicine
Class 6. A Look at Today
Introduction: This sixth and last class provides an opportunity for students to connect the present with the past, as they consider issues of mental illness, the relation of body and mind, the relationship between science and society, and the role of gender in the present. The class offers a variety of ways for students to gain a better understanding of mental illness today from the perspectives of emerging science and of the experience of patients. To accomplish these goals, students should be encouraged to synthesize, to put together the various building blocks of the preceding classes. For example, the instructor may ask students to bring together the ideas they have examined in previous classes and their understanding of the reading for Class 6 in a short essay.
Readings by Topics:
The instructor might exercise choice from the list of readings corresponding to the four topics below, as to which of these sections the class as a whole should consider. Alternatively, the instructor might have each student choose from these topics and then report to the class the understandings gained, so that students may engage in wide-ranging dialogue in the classroom.
Depression: Depression is currently the major mental illness of our time. This first-hand account offers a piercing look at the writer's experience of depression.
Solomon, Andrew. “Anatomy of Melancholy.” The New Yorker (Jan. 12, 1998): p. 46-61.
Contemporary Biological Approaches: These chapters in two books by a leading psychiatrist who has researched the chemical basis of schizophrenia for several decades, describe the way that physicians today again approach mental illness as a physical problem with psychological results.
Andreasen, Nancy C. The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry. New York:
Harper & Row, 1984, Chaps. 2, 3.
--- Brave New Brain. New York: Oxford, 2001, Chaps. 1, 6.
DSM: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in its fifth revision as of 2009, gives diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Today it is used by doctors as the primary means of working with insurance companies offering coverage to patients. This article gives a lively account of Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, the major figure in the construction of the critical 3rd edition of the DSM, which was the first edition to attempt precise diagnostic criteria for mental disorders.
Spiegel, Alix. “The Dictionary of Disorder” New Yorker (Jan. 3, 2005). Available online at
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/01/03/050103fa_fact (accessed 9/1/2009).
The Marketing and Gendering of Medications: David Herzberg's recent work examines the marketing and advertising of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac, looking not at their truth claims but rather at how they came to be persuasive and the effects this had on the broader culture. After public controversy erupted over Valium, Prozac came to be seen as the new feminist drug.
Herzberg, David. Happy Pills in America: From Milltown to Prozac. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2009, Chap. 5.
- Depression is the major mental illness of our time, and it demonstrates some important parallels to neurasthenia. Do you consider George Beard’s understandings to have any bearing today?
- What are some important questions about mental health issues in our time?
- How do current-day biological approaches to mental illness and drug treatment shape our understanding of ourselves?
- How might contemporary approaches to mental illness enable us to see Charlotte Perkins Gilman's breakdown in a different light?