A Brief History of Bipolar Disorder

History of bipolar
Have you had someone ask why they’ve never heard of bipolar disorder? Asked why no one had bipolar disorder when they were younger? Told you that bipolar disorder seems like the flavor of the month? I’ve heard all of the above many times and it’s damned frustrating. It makes me feel like they are invalidating my feelings. But a little research into the history of bipolar disorder and I can respond with some interesting facts.

The History of Bipolar and the Ancient Greeks

To me, the big surprise was to learn that bipolar is one of the oldest known illnesses on record. The documented history of bipolar disorder can be traced to the Ancient Greeks. Is there anything the Greeks didn’t know? Sometime during the 1st Century in Greece Aretaeus of Cappadociam described a group of patients that who :laugh, play, dance night and day, and sometimes go openly to the market crowned, as if victors in some contest of skill” only to be “torpid, dull, and sorrowful” at other times. He suggested that both patterns of behavior resulted from one and the same disorder. Aretaeus’ description fit my life perfectly.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were responsible for the terms “mania” and “melancholia,” which are now the modern day manic and depressive. They even discovered that using lithium salts in baths calmed manic patients and lifted the spirits of depressed people.

The History of Bipolar in China

Unfortunately, being a man ahead of his time, Aretaeus’ findings went unnoticed. Further historical writings of significance did not occur until 1583 when Chinese scholar Gao Lian wrote the Eight Treatises on the Nurturing of Life. His writings are the 16th century equivalent of modern self-help books with its wisdom on avoiding stress and other matters. Had he lived in the 1970’s (the height of the self-help book craze,) he probably would have made a fortune.

The History of Bipolar in Europe

In 1650, a scientist named Robert Burton wrote a book called The Anatomy of Melancholia which focused specifically on depression. Unlike his contemporaries, he studied and diagnosed patients with a mental rather than physical illness. He is credited with being the father of clinical depression as a mental illness. Burton’s book suggested using music and dance to treat melancholy (depression) as a form of treatment. Pretty smart actually. Those experiencing less severe forms of depression probably did feel better. Endorphins from exercise can do a lot to lighten a heavy load.

Fast forward a couple hundred years to 1854. At an address to the French Imperial Academy of Medicine, Jean-Pierre Falret, a French psychiatrist, described a disorder he called folie circulaire, which translates to my favorite term for bipolar, “circular insanity.” He also established a link between depression and suicide. He was able to find a distinction between moments of depression and heightened moods. He recognized this to be different from simple depression, and finally in 1875 his recorded findings were termed Manic-Depressive Psychosis, a psychiatric disorder. Personally, I still like circular insanity better. Falret also found the disease seemed to be occur more in certain families and believed that there was a genetic link, something medical professionals still believe to this today.

The “father” of much of our current understanding of bipolar disorder comes from the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin . In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Kraepelin studied and categorized the natural manic and depressive cycles of bipolar patients. Within fifteen years, this approach to mental illness was fully accepted and became the prevailing theory of the early 1930’s.

Current Day

The term “bipolar”—which means “two poles” signifying the polar opposites of mania and depression—first appeared in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagonostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in its third revision in 1980. It is believed to be less stigmatizing than the older term ‘manic–depressive illness.’ In the spirit of political correctness, the name was changed because the term manic was too similar to maniac.

So, there’s my brief little description of the history of bipolar disorder. I barely scratched the surface, but hope I was successful in providing a little info on how the disease was discovered…multiple times, throughout the history if bipolar. I also hope it helps give you some feedback the next time you’re told that bipolar is the new “in thing.”

8 comments on A Brief History of Bipolar Disorder

  1. Good and interesting information, Bradley. Somehow, it is comforting to know that bipolar has been recognized since the first century. It’s not new and still not completely understood. But today we have better help for those who want it than ever before.

    What I’d like to know is what countries attach the least stigma to the mentally ill and why? What, in their cultures, makes mental illness unacceptable or just as acceptable as any other disease? I’m particularly interested in the countries or cultures where there is little to no stigma. I wish I had the means and connections to travel and interview people around the world to answer those questions. Maybe someone has done that already –I’ll have to do some research.

    1. That is a very interesting question. I’d like to know which country provides the best mental health care. Let us know what you find out.

  2. Fascinating. Thank you. I prefer the term manic depression, for it is aptly descriptive. But I use bipolar disorder since it is the commonly accepted term of today.

    1. Welcome Kitt. I’ve always used the term bipolar because it wasn’t until later that I found out they are the same thing. I can see how manic depression does give a more accurate description.

  3. Hi there! I enjoyed reading this. I want to tell you that there’s a typo in a date that you wrote about. When you talk about the Chinese writer, Gao Lian, you wrote the year as 1853, but the correct year is 1583. I see how you just inverted the numbers — something I have to check for myself quite often 🙂

    1. I didn’t know I had to logon to comment– I’d be interested to read about your experience with stigma. Michelle

      1. Yes, everyone is required to login to prevent spam. I’m the only one who sees your information and I don’t even look, much less do anything with it.

        RE: stigma. I’m sure I’ve done a post about it, but I honestly experienced very little. Maybe it’s because I’m from California where if you don’t have a therapist people think there’s something wrong with you. LOL. Some people experience horrible stigma from family, friends, and more.

        I’d say the only stigma that I experienced is people being extra cautious and kind. Overly so, as if they’d set me off on some wild rampage or something.

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