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Americanitis: A Repetitive Stress Injury From Being Alive

Hanna Brooks Olsen

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“Modern life is killing us” — Doctors in 1925

Let’s play a quick game. The game goes like this: Think about Americans and what you know about us and then ponder what sort of disease would best incapsulate our general ethos. What might the symptoms be? Thin skin? Inability to think critically? A debilitating lack of empathy?

Unfortunately, that’s not precisely what Americanitis — an actual name for an actual (at the time) psychiatric condition — was when it was being diagnosed and treated. But honestly, it’s not that far off. And when I tell you what Americanitis actually is, you’re going to be curious why there isn’t a current CDC warning about the disease.

The Infection of Industrialization

First things, the term “Americanitis” so named because a whole lot of sad, pathetic Americans were falling ill with it, not because it was a condition whose symptoms were reminiscent of the traits of Americans. The Christian name for this poorly-defined constellation of symptoms was neurasthenia and it was kind of like garden-variety depression except more.

Neurasthenia was first described in 1829 as an actual weakness of the nerves, but it soon came to mean a broader set of problems. At this time, it was…

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with.