In the history of mankind, epidemics of madness present a particularly curious page. In addition to many other kinds of contagions, epidemics of madness frequently appeared upon various continents. Whole countries suffered from the intrusion of malicious ideas into various domains of life. Naturally, these epidemics broke out especially frequently in the spheres of religion, superstition, and within the bounds of official suspiciousness.
If we now glance back over the pages of all the religious martyrdoms, bringing sinister recollections of the Inquisition and various mass-madnesses, a not exaggerated picture of a true epidemic will emerge quite clearly. Just as any epidemic, this malady of madness flared up suddenly, seemingly from a small beginning, and grew with extraordinary speed into most violent forms. We are reminded of the various persecutions of "witches," which are even hard to believe. In the recent writings of Dr. Levi-Valency several curious details are related which remind one again of the possibility of an epidemic of madness.
The doctor tells us: "In ancient times the madmen complained that the devil was anxious to harm their soul and body; they prophesied, and blasphemed".
"The insane people today," says Dr. Levi-Valency, "rave about the Stavisky affair, or that of Prence, propose to reform the state, etc. A few years ago, at the height of the Dg crisis, many sick people complained that they were being put out of their apartments. Now the housing crisis is passed, but mass unemployment has begun. And the insane repeatedly insist that they are being deprived of their work, their livelihood, their unemployment compensation. In the ravings of fevered brains plots of the Masons and of the Surete are constantly mentioned." Dr. Levi-Valency tells about a bank clerk forty-four years old, who complained that he was "being persecuted by the Jews and the powerful foreign syndicates who conspired to treat him like Prence: He was always followed by two individuals — a one-armed man and a police agent with the "face of a murderer". His wife was also in danger:
"A thirteen-year-old boy is in the grip of a mania of persecution. He is convinced that he was involved in the Stavisky affair and that the "Mafia" is going to put him out of the way."
True, all these data of the doctor are fragmentary and extrinsic. Of course, his colleagues, the psychiatrists, could add to those he has cited a multitude of other examples. The investigators must continue with observations not only within the walls of the hospitals. They must observe broadly throughout the life of today. After all, the majority of madmen do not get into hospitals. They remain at large, often occupying very responsible posts. In order to evoke medical supervision, repeated and quite striking manifestations are needed. And how many mad actions take place while the madman is regarded as fully responsible for his actions and enjoys complete freedom to commit many crimes!
From the historical point of view this problem is quite complicated. Even statesmen in high positions and heads of governments, while still occupying their posts, have been known to become subject to acute madness. In spite of all attempts to hide the fact, some such attacks became so apparent that the madmen by one means or another were removed from their official activities; and then it could no longer be kept secret that they had been ill for some time before.
One may ask what is to be done with all the decrees, dispositions, and resolutions which were made during the period of madness. It means that the state and public life of whole countries perhaps even for a lengthy period, was invaded by madness. The hand of a madman continued to perform actions while he was in an obviously sick state of mind. Should such actions be accepted as authoritative? This is a very weighty question which is avoided in every way by jurists.
In the final analysis it cannot be answered. Let us recall even those cases of madness of public officials, which have been revealed in our time. Who could accurately determine precisely when this madness, which was so obvious at the end, began? How many times, because of a so-called acute nervous breakdown were these officials hastily offered a vacation, and later appeared in some special hospital? Yet, prior to the moment of this leave-taking or resignation a great deal had taken place.
Is there always an examination of that which was enacted during the time of the sick condition? Cases are known wherein the heads of governments acted when already in a state of complete insanity. What, then, should be done with those official governmental acts sanctioned by madmen? Many such deplorable actions are known through the records of history.
At present, Dr. Levi-Valency's raising the question of epidemics of madness is quite timely. People poisoned by all kinds of unhealthy conditions of life become subject especially easily to various insane manias.
We do not know at all how the many new energies currently being evoked into action react upon psychic excitement. Such fields of tension cannot be neutral; they must react somehow, but this "somehow" is seen at present as an especially large "unknown."
In any case, one should welcome the voices of scientists, physicians, and, in this case, psychiatrists, whose help is urgently needed for examination of the confusion of minds now rampant in the world.
If attentive observers would not be reluctant to relate to physicians all sorts of unusual manifestations noted by them, the results might be useful. Such extraneous information could impel the thought of an investigator toward possibilities of great benefit.
At present many new forms of epidemics occur. Especially exasperating is influenza, which sometimes becomes a form of pulmonary plague. Also many psychoses are developing — to an unprecedented degree.
Here is a broad field for undeferrable action by all investigators. Even the brief and specific annotations of history could also lead to many useful deliberations.
February 12, 1935