Why People With Mental Health Problems Used To Be Called "Aliens"

Photo: Courtesy of TNT.
If you were planning to watch the premiere of TNT's new show The Alienist tonight expecting UFOs and extraterrestrial encounters, we really couldn't blame you based on that title. But you'd be sorely disappointed. The Alienist, is in fact, not about aliens — at least not the kind of "aliens" you might expect.
In the show, based on the novel of the same name by Caleb Carr, crime reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) works with psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) to investigate a series of gruesome murders in New York in 1896. Dr. Kreizler has been recruited to help because of his expertise as a psychologist, or as psychologists and psychiatrists were known at that time, "alienists," hence the title of the book and show.
The term "alienist" might sound like it would apply to someone who studies the extraterrestrial, but in the 19th century, it was actually the preferred term to describe those who worked in psychology.
Susan Cahn, PhD, a history professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in the history of mental illness, says that "alienist" likely originated from the French word aliene, meaning "insane," thus the noun alieniste (or alienist in English) referred to someone who treated the "insane."
"I assume, in addition to the French word, it implies a person being 'alienated' from their primary self or personality, thus a state of madness," she says.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word can still be used today to describe a psychiatrist who assesses a court defendant's mental competency, but its usage to refer to psychologists and psychiatrists in general has become obsolete — something that Dr. Cahn says may be attributed to the term "psychiatrist" becoming more standardized. When Carr published his novel in 1994, the word alienist had already aged out of usage, but it was synchronous with the time period that his book took place in.
Of course, referring to a person struggling with mental health as an "alien" has some hefty negative connotations — i.e., the suggestion that mentally ill people are so far removed from the realm of normalcy that they're aliens. But Dr. Cahn says that the term may not have necessarily created more stigma against mental illness, since, sadly, mental illness has almost always been associated with shame.
"I think mental illness was already stigmatized and has remained so — I don’t know if the name 'alienist' had any effect, one way or the other," she says.
Still, the term speaks to the blatant stigma that mental health carried in the 19th century. While that's improved in recent years, mental illness is still seen by many as a taboo topic. So, while The Alienist may not involve space aliens (unless it takes some major liberties with the book), here's hoping it helps remove some of the stigma that's still lingering in the 21st century.

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