History of Major Depressive Disorder

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History of Major Depressive Disorder

Major depressive disorder is categorized as a mental disorder and here we see the short view on mental disorders history for a better understanding about depressive disorder.

First written accounts

The earliest written accounts of what is now known as depression appeared in the second millennium B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. In these writings, depression was discussed as a spiritual rather than a physical condition. Like other mental illnesses, it was believed to be caused by demonic possession. As such, it was dealt with by priests rather than physicians.

History of Major Depressive Disorder
History of Major Depressive Disorder

Demons and Evils

The idea of depression being caused by demons and evil spirits has existed in many cultures, including those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Chinese, and Egyptians. Because of this belief, it was often treated with methods such as beatings, physical restraint, and starvation in an attempt to drive the demons out.
Greek and Roman doctors used therapeutic methods such as gymnastics, massage, diet, music, baths, and a medication containing poppy extract and donkey’s milk to treat their patients.


Hippocrates, a Greek physician, suggested that depression (initially called “melancholia”) was caused by four imbalanced body fluids called humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Specifically, he thought that melancholia was caused by too much black bile in the spleen. Hippocrates’ treatments of choice included bloodletting, baths, exercise, and diet.


A Roman philosopher and statesman named Cicero, in contrast, believed that melancholia had psychological causes such as rage, fear, and grief.

Cornelius Celsus (25 BCE to 50 CE)

During the common era, many barbaric and primitive treatments for depression continued to be the norm. Cornelius Celsus (25 BCE to 50 CE) reportedly recommended the very harsh treatments of starvation, shackles, and beating in cases of mental illness.

Rhazes (865–925 CE)

A Persian doctor named Rhazes (865–925 CE), however, did see mental illness as arising from the brain. He recommended such treatments as baths and a very early form of behavior therapy which involved positive rewards for appropriate behavior.

Lunatic asylums

During the Middle Ages, religion, especially Christianity, dominated European thinking on mental illness, with people again attributing it to the devil, demons, or witches. Exorcisms, drowning, and burning were popular treatments of the time. Many people were locked up in so-called “lunatic asylums.”


During the Renaissance, which began in 14th century Italy and spread throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, witch hunts and executions of the mentally ill were still quite common; however, some doctors were revisiting the idea of mental illness having a natural rather than a supernatural cause.

Robert Burton (1621)

In the year 1621, Robert Burton published “Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which he outlined the social and psychological causes of depression (such as poverty, fear, and loneliness). In this book, he made recommendations like diet, exercise, travel, purgatives (to clear toxins from the body), bloodletting, herbs, and music therapy in the treatment of depression.

Age of Enlightenment

During the 18th and 19th centuries, also called the Age of Enlightenment, depression came to be viewed as a weakness in temperament that was inherited and could not be changed. The result of these beliefs was that people with this condition should be shunned or locked up.

During the latter part of the Age of Enlightenment, doctors began to suggest the idea that aggression was at the root of the condition. Other doctors of the time spoke of depression as resulting from internal conflicts between what you want and what you know is right.

And yet others sought to identify the physical causes of this condition. Treatments during this period included water immersion (staying underwater for as long as possible without drowning) and using a spinning stool to put the brain contents back into their correct positions.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is also reported to have developed an early form of electroshock therapy during this time.
In 1895, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin became the first to distinguish manic depression, what we now know as bipolar disorder, as an illness separate from dementia praecox (the term for schizophrenia at the time).

Sigmund Freud

In 1917, Sigmund Freud wrote about mourning and melancholia where he theorized about melancholia as being a response to lose, either real (for example, a death) or symbolic (such as failure to achieve the desired goal). Freud further believed that a person’s unconscious anger over their loss leads to self-hatred and self-destructive behavior.

He felt that psychoanalysis could help a person resolve these unconscious conflicts, reducing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. Other doctors during this time, however, saw depression as a brain disorder.

Behaviorists Idea

The behaviorists rejected the idea that depression was caused by unconscious forces and instead suggested that it was a learned behavior. Just as these depressive behaviors had been learned, they could also be unlearned. Principles of learning such as association and reinforcement could be used to establish and strengthen more effective, healthier behaviors.

Aaron Beck

During the 1960s and 1970s, cognitive theories of depression began to emerge. The cognitive theorist Aaron Beck proposed that the way that people interpret negative events could contribute to symptoms of depression.
According to Beck, depressed people tend to automatically interpret events in negative ways and view themselves as helpless and inadequate.

Martin Seligman

The psychologist Martin Seligman suggested that learned helplessness could play a role in the development of depression. According to this theory, people often give up on trying to change their situation because they feel that nothing they do will make a difference. This lack of control leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless.

Emergence of CBT

The emergence of these cognitive models of depression played an important role in the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression.

Medical model of mental disorders

During the 1970s, the medical model of mental disorders emerged and suggested that all mental disorders are primarily caused by physiological factors. The medical model views mental health conditions in the same way as other physical illnesses, which means that such conditions can also be treated with medication.

Biological explanations for depression

Biological explanations for depression focus on factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, hormones, and brain anatomy. This view played an important role in the development and increased use of antidepressants in the treatment of depression.


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, treatments for severe depression generally weren’t enough to help patients. Desperate for relief, many people turned to lobotomies, which are surgeries to destroy the brain’s prefrontal lobe.  Though reputed to have a “calming” effect, lobotomies often caused personality changes, a loss of decision-making ability, poor judgment, and sometimes even death.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is an electrical shock applied to the scalp in order to induce a seizure, was also sometimes used for patients with depression

Subtypes of Depression

In the 1950s and 60s, doctors divided depression into subtypes of:

  • Endogenous
  • Neurotic or reactive

Endogenous depression

Endogenous depression was thought to result from genetics or some other physical defect.

Neurotic or reactive depression

The neurotic or reactive type of depression was believed to be the result of some outside problems such as a death or loss of a job.

Isoniazid for depression

The 1950s were an important decade in the treatment of depression thanks to the fact that doctors noticed that a tuberculosis medication called isoniazid seemed to be helpful in treating depression in some people. Where depression treatment had previously been focused only on psychotherapy, drug therapies now started to be developed and added to the mix.

Medicine for depression

One of the first drugs to emerge for the treatment of depression was known as Tofranil (imipramine), which was then followed by a number of other medications categorized as tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Such drugs provided relief for many people with depression but were often accompanied by serious side effects that included weight gain, tiredness, and the potential for overdose.

Other antidepressants later emerged, including Prozac (fluoxetine) in 1987, Zoloft (sertraline) in 1991, and Paxil (paroxetine) in 1992. These medications, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), target serotonin levels in the brain and usually have fewer side effects than their predecessors.

Term introduction

The term major depressive disorder (MDD) was first introduced by clinicians in the United States during the 1970s.

DSM inclusion

The condition officially became part of the DSM-III in 1980.



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