Migraine Mania, Female Hysteria: Migraines, Female Hysteria, and Psychiatric Care during the Great Depression and New Deal Eras

Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:20 AM
Bryant Room (New York Hilton)
Katie Grennell, State University of New York, Buffalo State College
Migraines have been misunderstood and dismissed as debilitating for centuries though the many symptoms associated with this neurological disease can be both chronic and debilitating. Uncoincidentally, many of its symptoms are associated with female hysteria. What was once considered a disorder related to the uterus, hysteria evolved into a catch-all phrase for unexplained symptoms experienced by women. By the time it was removed as a medical disorder from the DSM-III in 1980, it was far too late to protect the women who had been subjected to primitive treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and hydrotherapy. But what if these women had been suffering from migraine all along?

The early 20th century witnessed the convergence of many contradictory sociopolitical movements. The push to expel the “ills of society” by Eugenicists and nativists, among others, occurred simultaneously with movements advocating for the rights of women, laborers and mental health patients. While these moral and ethical battles continued, the Great Depression and subsequent New Deal eras interrupted the momentum of Eugenicists and progressives. Treatment of hysteria was often conducted in psychiatric hospitals, institutions and clinics that were funded by the state. The lapse in resources, staff and funding, brought upon by the economic recession, led to a shift in psychiatric care.

This presentation will explore migraine in female patients diagnosed with hysteria during the Great Depression and New Deal Eras. I will address the following questions: Did this convergence of sociopolitical movements, advances in psychiatric medicine and research and gender politics give way to the dismissal of hysteria and increase in awareness and understanding of migraine? How did the decline in funding for psychiatric hospitals, clinics and institutions contribute to the shift in treatment of hysteria? And how might this have impacted the treatment of women suffering from migraine?