A Brief History Of The Hysterical Man

For generations, "hysteria" was considered a woman's complaint. A new book blows the lid off the myth.

As Smithsonian magazine reports, a new book, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness, history professor Mark Micale takes on something no one's ever acknowledged: male hysteria.

The term “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for “womb” and refers to a disease that was once diagnosed almost exclusively in women. Women’s asthma, widow’s melancholy, uterine epilepsy — these were all synonyms for a strange complex of symptoms that included unexplained pains, mysterious convulsions, sudden loss of sensation in the limbs and dozens of other complaints without apparent physical cause. Particularly during the Victorian age, doctors thought hysteria demonstrated the general fragility of the fair sex. The best remedy was a good marriage. But all the while untold numbers of men were suffering from the same illness.

Hysteria, of course, was seen as an extension of women's frailty and generally mysterious biological workings. Men — the moral pillars of society — were naturally not prone to the same histronics. Except, of course, that they were. A compliment to their state of mind, perhaps, but also a barrier to receiving what little "treatment" the vague complaints received, and a prejudice which still has echoes in attitudes towards modern men's mental health. What the Victorians called "hysteria" is now thought to be variously identified as “somatization disorder," “psychogenic pain disorder” and a number of other psychological disorders. As Micale explains,

It’s not that the behavior didn’t exist. It did exist. It was rampant. Men were as prone to nervous breakdown as women were...If you were to diagnose honestly, that would have pretty quickly called into the question the difference between the sexes and the idea that men were more self-possessed than their fragile, dependent female counterparts. Ultimately it comes down to patriarchy and power.

The first acknowledgment of "male hysteria" came with the unignorable results of WWI combat: "shell shock." Micale suggests that this was more palatable to people because "these cases almost exclusively involved men, engaged in an honorable male activity." This, he adds, has contributed to increasingly open attitudes towards cases of PTSD — still not easy for many to accept — and explains many men's ingrained disinclination to seek psychiatric help. It's always interesting and dispiriting to be reminded of the extent to which archaic social structures harmed men as well as women: as recently as our grandparents' generation, seeking psychiatric help was regarded as somehow unmanly, as was any lack of control. "Hysteria" may be a thing of the past; the attitudes aren't.

History of the Hysterical Man [Smithsonian]