Weekend Reads: What is Hysteria?
March is Women’s History Month, with Sunday specifically being International Women’s Day. This is to pay tribute to and learn more about women and the history of women’s rights, as well as honor the movements that women are participating in today to make the world a better place in the future. Regardless of race, sexuality, class, and socioeconomic status, women have made great strides and efforts to do more with the opportunities they’ve had available to them.
Women’s history has been, and continues to be, faced with many obstacles and battles. This includes mental health and how women’s emotions were perceived and dismissed by others around them. The most common instance of this is through the “hysteria” diagnosis during the Victorian era (although it dates back to ancient Egyptian and Greek times too – the word comes from the Greek word hystera meaning womb). Those who were biologically female were almost always the ones being diagnosed with the disease. The medical field was dominated by men, and if they were unsure what was wrong with a female patient or found them to be “mysterious,” they were diagnosed with hysteria. If a woman seemed to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses today, science back then claimed that it was because of something wrong in their womb.
Though the hysteria diagnosis was removed from the DSM in 1980, it’s still worth learning more about its history and the stigma against women’s mental health. Although mental illness is often more associated with women and they are more likely to develop depression and PTSD (especially in adolescents), there is still a long way to go in the discussion of women and how to approach and treat their mental health.
The stories below approach women and hysteria in different ways. The first gives an overview about the direct effects of the hysteria diagnosis on women in the Victorian Era, especially once they were given treatment through psychiatry (which often included institutionalization). The second explains how hysteria was an upper class white woman’s disease, and while they received treatment, women of color who had similar “symptoms” were often used as tools of experimentation. The final article talks about women’s mental health today and the issues with them – while fewer people today call women hysterical when they show emotion – mental illness in women was, and still is romanticized, dating the reasons for this back to when “hysteria” was at its peak.
How Victorian Women Were Oppressed Through the Use of Psychiatry (The Atlantic)
The Racialized History of “Hysteria” (Jstor Daily)
What Our Obsession with Tragic, Beautiful, Mentally Ill Women Says About Us (Vice)
How do you think girls and their mental health is handled today? Why do you think people were so dismissive about their mental health in the past? How has your mental health been perceived based off of your gender?