By Gil Press
In the Wall Street Journal today, Shirley S. Wang reports on a new study published today in The Lancet, which “provides early evidence that several disorders thought to be distinct appear to have some genetic overlap, and it may help in one day diagnosing mental illness based on faulty biological processes, and not just on behavioral symptoms.”
The study compared the genes of some 33,000 people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and also compared them with a group of nearly 28,000 controls. It “identified several regions of the genome that were associated with all five diseases.”
In Mind, Modernity, Madness, Liah Greenfeld came to a similar conclusion that viewing manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia as distinct illnesses, each with its own biological causes, is wrong. Instead, she argues that they should be placed on a continuum of the complexity of the will-impairment caused by the anomie inherent in modern culture. This argument, linking mental illness to individuals’ (varied) response to the pressures of modern society, could also explain why “the findings don’t mean that an individual with one or more of these gene variants has or will develop the condition,” as the Wall Street Journal article–and the authors of the study–conclude.
By David Phillippi
In the same 16th century England which brought the world ambition and love (see Madness: A Modern Phenomenon), a new form of mental disease—madness—appeared. While previously known forms of mental illness were temporary, related perhaps to an infection, an accident damaging the brain, a pregnancy, a bodily illness like “pox” (syphilis), or old age, madness was chronic—usually appearing at a fairly young age (without evidence of an organic cause) and lasting till death. Another of its names, lunacy, reflected the suspicion of a physical cause—specifically implicating the waxing and waning of the moon in the periodic alterations in the character and symptoms of the sufferers. The word insanity entered English at that time too, apparently referring to the same phenomenon as madness and lunacy.
The chronic nature of madness made it a legal issue from the very beginning; the first provision in English law for mentally disturbed individuals—referred to, specifically, as “madmen and lunatics”— dates back only to 1541. Also in the middle of the 16th century, Bethlehem Hospital—more commonly known as Bedlam, the world’s first mental asylum—became a public institution, transferred to the city of London in 1547. While there was probably little to be praised in terms of humane treatment and comfortable accommodations, Bedlam continued to expand into the 17th century to meet what seemed to be a growing need to house the severely mentally ill.
Physicians of the day sought to describe and understand this new phenomenon, but their methods, sources, and interpretations were thoroughly mixed. Their reliance on classical Greek and Latin terms of mental disturbance resulted in a liberal blend of (their interpretation of) the old ideas with the new reality, and though they attempted to draw distinctions between conditions, they were far from clear. The cause was usually assumed to be organic. The common attribution of madness to an imbalance of the four humors shows the strong influence of the classical medical understanding. (The use of the term melancholy as a name for mental illness in general or a particular variety of it is a prime example). Insanity might also be explained by the stars under which one was born. Some authors distinguished between organic madness and spiritual madness caused by demonic influence. Still others focused on mental states that could in turn affect the body.
By David Phillippi
For most of human history, in most societies, identity was not something one had to go searching for – it was given at birth. For most individuals, the socio-cultural space relevant to their lives was easy to map out, and directions for proper navigation were well understood from a young age. Life may have been extremely difficult in the physical sense, but at least it was not confusing – people knew their proper place.
As Greenfeld has demonstrated in her first major work, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, this changed in 16th century England following the War of Roses, which wrecked the nobility and left the rigidly stratified society of orders in disarray. In its place, a new consciousness emerged–nationalism–the modern consciousness, which redefined the possibilities for life in England and in the other societies to which it soon spread. We call this new consciousness nationalism simply because “nation” was the name given to the society in which it emerged by those 16th century Englishmen who first experienced its dignifying effects.
Nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism. (Three distinctive features which most often take shape along with this consciousness are an open class structure, the state form of government, and an economy oriented towards sustained growth). At the beginning of the 16th century, someone among the newly elevated English aristocracy began equating the word “nation,” which had formerly referred to as a political and cultural elite, with the word “people,” which referred originally to the lower classes. This equation of “nation” and “people” both reflected and reinforced the new reality of English society, where the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism made the nation and all its members an elite. No longer confined to a particular station in life by a closed societal structure ordained by Divine Providence, man became his own ruler, the maker of his own destiny. This elevation in dignity for every member of the nation meant that life in the here and now gained much greater importance–eternity was no longer the realm of the meaningful. This is the source of the secularism of modern society–God was not consciously abolished, but was essentially replaced by man.