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Mad in America: Rethinking Mental Health

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Welcome to the Mad in America podcast, a new weekly discussion that searches for the truth about psychiatric prescription drugs and mental health care worldwide.This podcast is part of Mad in America’s mission to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care and mental health. We believe that … read more


Michael Fontaine - What the Ancient World can Teach us About Emotional Distress

This week, we interview Professor Michael Fontaine. Michael is Professor of Classics and Associate Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education at Cornell University in New York. He regularly consults on Latin for museums, institutions, dealers, and collectors, having exposed forgery in Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age paintings. In 2016 he received the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties.

In the episode we discuss:

  • How Michael came to be a Professor of Classics and Literature.
  • How studying the ancient world helps us to understand what the first scientists thought about mental or emotional distress.
  • The first use of the phrase ‘psychiatric ward’ which can be found at the Library of Alexandria in Northern Egypt.
  • That the phrase that ultimately became the word ‘Psychiatry’ in ancient times actually meant a “Healing Place for the Soul” and is inscribed above library entrances even today (ΨΥΧΗΣ ΙΑΤΡΕΙΟΝ or Psyches iatreion).
  • The links between the Rosenhan experiment and a comedic play written 2,200 years ago by the ancient Roman playwright T. Maccius Plautus.
  • That, in the ancient world, there was no long term incarceration in prisons or asylums.
  • The relationship between the Hippocratic/medical model (the humoral theory) and the Epicurean model of mental or emotional distress.
  • That, in the ancient world, depression didn’t exist, and that the solutions for unhappiness were based in the community or in Philosophy.
  • That about 1700 years ago, the Roman Empire entered a state of decline and it became mandatory to become Christian and during this time the philosophical view of mental distress died away to be overtaken by a supernatural understanding.
  • Some of the similarities between the Epicurean model and the work of Thomas Szasz.
  • How Michael came to know and discuss some of these matters with Thomas Szasz and, following his suicide in 2012, presented an academic paper to the American Psychiatric Association on Thomas Szasz’ legacy.
  • The statistics that show that one in every four women around middle age in the US is taking an antidepressant.
  • Michael’s essay on Schizophrenia in the ancient world.
  • The distinction between the causes of, and the reasons for, our behaviour.
  • Ron Leifer having his career ruined because of his support for the ideas of Thomas Szasz.
  • A poem from 2,100 years ago by the Latin poet Catullus, that deals with transgender identity, even though it is generally believed that gender identity issues are a recent phenomenon (last 50 years or so).
  • How Greek Tragedy can help us understand the world, particularly those of Euripides such as Medea

Relevant links:

On Being Sane in an Insane Place—The Rosenhan Experiment in the Laboratory of Plautus’ Epidamnus

On Religious and Psychiatric Atheism: The Success of Epicurus, the Failure of Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz

Mental Disorders in the Classical World (A Review)

Schizophrenia in the Golden Ass

What Do the DSM, Elvis Presley, and Dionysus Have in Common?

To get in touch with us email:

© Mad in America 2018

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