In 1896 you could treat mental illnesses with this wine tonic, which was advertised in our pages. (J. Archives)
In 1896 you could treat mental illnesses with this wine tonic, which was advertised in our pages. (J. Archives)

Mental health discourse was far more cruel in this newspaper’s past

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May marks both Jewish American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. As far as “awareness” months go, the latter has a more venerable history. While President George W. Bush established Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006, Mental Health Awareness Month dates back to 1949.

How we approach mental health today, though, is quite different from how it was discussed back in 1949 and especially in the early days of this publication at the end of the 19th century. It was talked about more crudely in certain ways in decades past, but then as now, people wanted to understand it — and to help those who were suffering.

The first time that mental health is mentioned in our pages is 1896, a year after our founding. Editor and Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger clearly needed a vacation when he wrote his weekly column while visiting a friend, “Dr. John.” The doctor was a “professor of mental diseases at the University of California, a man who has devoted his life to the treatment of the mentally insane, and who has lived his days in the study of the vexed problems of the relation between the physical and mental constitution.”

Voorsanger spoke with his friend about stress and how it affects mental health. That makes sense today, even if he didn’t exactly put it in modern terms.

“I have resolved that he who takes not an occasional rest, either from labor or pleasure, he who uses his frame like a steam engine that puffs day and night, is a sinner against God and himself, in that he avails himself of a process of self-destruction that, no matter how slowly, acts as securely as when he deliberately lies down to asphyxiate himself,” Voorsanger wrote.

“Dyspepsia, nervous prostration, neurasthenia, melancholy, brought on God knows by what insidious ways of incessant abuse of one’s constitutional powers — they are but results of the wear and tear to which the human frame is subjected, without a thought of the rest that is as essential as food … Sitting on Dr. John’s porch, he drives these truths into me with the logic of a mind that for years has dwelled on the many phases of human unhappiness,” Voorsanger continued.

“Dr. John” was John Robertson, who ran a sanitorium in the Livermore area, Voorsanger explained. The rural site operated until the 1960s and was notable for facilities that were a little less grim and institutional than was typical — Voorsanger mentions cottages — which was quite forward-thinking for the time. Voorsanger makes a point of mentioning that he was visiting Robertson as a friend and not as a patient, yet the nearby mental institution clearly made an impression.

The question of what caused mental illness was a subject of great interest in the early days of our paper. Voorsanger was convinced that it was stress, while a 1906 article suggested that mental illness was caused by a lack of “free circulation” of blood through the brain and that this issue could be solved by keeping the brain active and by engaging in hobbies.

“It is fortunate that in American rural districts, at least, the deadly insanity to which many of the farmer folk in other generations have succumbed, seems now to have become obviated by the welcome establishment in every nook and corner of the land of the library, the ten-cent magazine, the telephone and the trolley car,” the article said.

A rather cruel article that same year about Jewish refugees who wanted to return home to Russia’s Pale of Settlement suggested nostalgia as a culprit and mentioned that Jews were prone to certain kinds of mental weaknesses:

“With the natural tendency of the Jew toward nervous disorders the morbid conditions of nostalgia frequently develop into melancholia, hypochondriasis, suicidal mania and insanity.”

By contrast, a 1907 account of a mental institution in Cincinnati, Ohio, noted surprise that Jews were among its patients “because as a general proposition insanity is said by experts to be less prevalent among the Jews than among other people.” The interviewee attributed their presence to having been “crazed by the ocean trip following their sufferings in Russia, by fear of the fate of relatives and friends whom they left behind.”

So stress, nostalgia, boredom, trauma and fear were all possible culprits. Perhaps also, a lack of food or an excessive amount of alcohol could lead to insanity, our paper considered. And instead of the boredom of rural life, perhaps it was the intensity of city dwelling that affected people. A doctor named A. Myerson wrote about the “Nervousness of the Jew” for our publication in 1920.

“Now there need be no difference of opinion about the liability of the Jews to psychoneurosis,” he said. “Step into any clinic for nervous diseases in any large city in Europe or America and the Jew is unduly represented among the patients.”

The reason? Mostly persecution and the vagaries of history. But also … too much city life?

Any nervous system that can withstand “country life may go to pieces when assailed by the extraordinary stimuli of the city,” Myerson wrote.

Today, our understanding of mental illness involves genetics, epigenetics, environment, culture and a host of other elements. We also recognize the role of stress, fear and trauma, as this paper did long ago.

Maybe in another 130 years, our more recent stories about mental health and the Jewish community will seem quaint or ignorant. But now, just like at the end of the 19th century, our coverage will be motivated by compassion.

“The mind is the instrument of happiness,” Voorsanger wrote in 1896. “A cloud on it is a cloud on the sun, or rather the passing of a body across it — the small light left chills the heart.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.