A Visual for Mental Health Terms


Mentally ill.


Our culture has many terms surrounding mental health: This is a visualization of some of those terms.

Occurrences of the terms “mental health,” “insanity,” “mental illness,” and “psychopathology” in books and magazines from the years 1500-2008

These images come from the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Here, we see the term “insanity” has been with us for a long time. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term first appeared in the late 1500’s. The same resource reports “insane” appeared slightly earlier, from the Latin “insanus”: “in-” meaning “not,” “sanus” meaning “well, healthy, sane,” comparing it to the Italian “pazzo,” meaning “insane,” originally a euphemism from the Latin “patiens” meaning “suffering,” which at least sounds sympathetic. Thankfully, it looks like the term has been in decline.

Last week’s survey showed that anxiety and depression are the most common mental disorders among readers who took the quiz. The concept of anxiety disorder is relatively modern–here are other words we’ve used:

Occurrences of the terms “stress,” “anxiety,” “nerves,” “hysteria,” and “panic attack” in books and magazines from the years 1700-2008

67.2% of the survey takers also reported experiencing stress every day or almost every day. It looks like the usage of the term “stress” has increased with our modern era–is it a reflexion of how life has also changed during that time?

“Melancholy” and “melancholia” have described symptoms now labeled as depression since the 1300’s. The term comes from the Greek for the color black, as it was long attributed to an excess of black bile, one of the body’s four humors (the theory that an imbalance of the humors–black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood–caused basically any medical pathology began around 500 BCE and lasted into the 20th century; it was the theory behind bloodletting, and still shows up in terms like “hot blooded”).

Occurrences of the terms “major depression,” “melancholia,” and “dysthymia” in books and magazines from the years 1700-2008

Finally, several other mental illnesses:

World War I ran 1914-1918, and was the first time the term “shell shock” was used–the frequency of its use seems indicative of its impact on the mental health of the generation.

Occurrences of the terms “bipolar disorder,” “attention deficit,” “eating disorder,” “anxiety disorder,” “panic attack,” and “post traumatic stress” in books and magazines from the years 1900-2008

Do you see what I see with this one? It looks like our current lexicon for referring to mental illness originated in the 1980’s. That’s not that long ago!

Personally, I feel psychiatry is still in its infancy. It looks like it hasn’t been that long since we’ve been able to really even identify a lot of its disorders, let alone attempting to treat them.

Still, the occurrence of terms like “insanity” and “melancholia” date back hundreds of years. As a society, we’ve known for a long time about the existence of mental illness. I think this is a pretty good indication of it has always been with us, for as long as we’ve been people. Why do we still have so much judgement surrounding it?

This week’s survey is about the terms we should and shouldn’t use to talk about mental health. Take it here.

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