What makes a disease a disease? Sometimes We Get it Wrong. – Hope 103.2

What makes a disease a disease? Sometimes We Get it Wrong.

In a world where illness seems to be everywhere, where does failing biology stop and personal responsibility begin? On Open House author of Unwell, Mike McRae, explored the nature of illness and disease.

By Anne RinaudoWednesday 5 Sep 2018Open House InterviewsHealth and WellbeingReading Time: 3 minutes

Listen: Mike McCrae in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

In a world where illness seems to be everywhere, where does failing biology stop and personal responsibility begin? On Open House author of Unwell, Mike McRae, explored the nature of illness and disease. 

Diseases that weren’t

Nostalgia used to be a killer nervous condition. Hysteria afflicted women, left-handed folk were beaten to be turned ‘right’, and rotten teeth pulled to cure the mentally unwell. Just who made these diseases ‘diseases’ anyway? And what makes us think we understand any better today?

Mike McRae’s book ‘Unwell – What Makes a Disease a Disease?’ provides a fascinating exploration of the ever-changing nature of illness. An intriguing condition he investigates is neurasthenia, also sometimes called ‘Americanitis’. It described a sort of anxiety that accompanied increasing industrialisation and urbanisation. 

Catholics immune

Bizarrely, it was considered to afflict Protestants more than Catholics because as Mike McCrae explains in Unwell, the neurologist who popularised neurasthenia as a disease believed  “Catholics were relatively immune from the religious anxiety that plagued other sects, since they left all their spiritual concerns to a hierarchy of theologians. Similarly, Beard believed life among the agrarian white southerners was simple enough to not stress their nerves, while those of African heritage were of such ‘immature mind’ that they were hardly at any great risk of stress and anxiety.”

Author Mike McCrae and his latest book, Unwell

Treated with Coca-Cola

In his new book, Unwell, Mike McCrae goes on to catalogue some of the treatments for neurasthenia or Americanitis, “Coca-Cola – in its original, non-carbonated form – claimed to treat this ubiquitous disorder of the nerves.”

“Men were typically told to get out and exercise more. For those who could afford it, the prescription was to venture west, with forays into the untamed wilds just the ticket to cure the impotent, anxious, disillusioned modern American male. Perhaps the most famous of neurasthenic sufferers was the future US president Theodore Roosevelt, who, on being accused of being too effeminate as a result of his nervous condition, took to the western wilderness to toughen up.”

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Future US president Theodore Roosevelt was diagnosed with neurasthenia

Bed rest in a dim room

“For women, on the other hand, the cure was total withdrawal from the world, …. Some cases were considered to be so severe that physicians commanded complete bed rest in a dim room, without so much as a conversation or even a book to alleviate the soothing boredom.” says Mike McCrae.

Who we are and how we live

Using humour, historical anecdotes, scientific research and personal stories, author Mike McRae illuminates the power of disease and medical diagnoses to define who we are and how we live. In a time when extreme violence is blamed on poor mental health, when people suffer for want of health insurance, and research dollars depend on sharp marketing campaigns, understanding the social and cultural nature of disease is vital for our wellbeing – and the wellbeing of our community.

To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.