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Schizophrenia - History of the disorder

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Historical terminologyEdit

A number of terms that are no longer recognised have been used in the past to describe aspects of schizophrenia:

Accounts that may relate to symptoms of schizophrenia date back as far as 2000 BC in the Book of Hearts, part of the ancient Ebers papyrus. However, a recent study1 into the ancient Greek and Roman literature showed that, while the general population probably had an awareness of psychotic disorders, there was no recorded condition that would meet the modern diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia in these societies.

This nonspecific concept of "madness" has been around for many thousands of years, but schizophrenia was only classified as a distinct mental disorder by Kraepelin in 1887. He was the first to make a distinction between schizophrenia and manic depression.

The term schizophrenia is derived from the Greek words 'schizo' (split) and 'phren' (mind) and was coined by Eugene Bleuler to refer to the lack of interaction between thought processes and perception. "The patients that I have observed do not respond to situations as they should; they are frightened by what is not there, yet they remain indifferent to what is. It is as if they have a split mind." He was also the first to describe the symptoms as "positive" or "negative."2

Bleuler suggested the name schizophrenia, as it was obvious that Kraepelin's name was misleading. The word "praecox" implied precocious or early onset, hence premature dementia, as opposed to senile dementia from old age. Bleuler realized the illness was not a dementia, as it did not lead to mental deterioration. Rather, schizophrenia led to a sharpening of the senses and a greater awareness of memories and experiences.

With the name 'schizophrenia' Bleuler intended to capture the separation of function between personality, thinking, memory, and perception, however it is commonly misunderstood to mean that affected persons have a 'split personality' (something akin to the character in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Although some people diagnosed with schizophrenia may 'hear voices' and may experience the voices as distinct personalities, schizophrenia does not involve a person changing among distinct multiple personalities. The confusion perhaps arises in part due to the meaning of Bleuler's term 'schizophrenia' (literally 'split mind'). Interestingly, the first known misuse of this word schizophrenia to mean 'split personality' (in the Jekyll and Hydesense) was in an article by the poet T. S. Eliot in 1933. 3

In the first half of the twentieth century schizophrenia was considered by many to be a "hereditary defect", and individuals affected by schizophrenia became subject to eugenics in many countries. Hundreds of thousands were sterilized, with or without consent, the majority in Nazi Germany, the United States, and Scandinavian countries. Many people diagnosed with schizophrenia, together with other people labeled "mentally unfit", were murdered in the Nazi "Operation T-4" programme.



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