As bizarre mental health issues go, tarantism is one of the more entertaining ones, literally. Most mental health issues lean toward the negative side of behaviors and just generally don’t seem all that fun. Tarantism is in its own class in that regard though!
As you read about this mental health disorder, keep in mind that a large part of calling a disorder a disorder is based on what is acceptable to society. That’s because a disorder is characterized as such if the symptoms indicate a lack of ability to function in an acceptable and healthy manner. That means that things that are not considered acceptable by society may very well be declared as symptoms of a mental health disorder.
Centuries ago, tarantism was labeled as such because of the accepted cause of the disorder. Tarantism was apparently deemed to be caused by bites from a tarantula. As the venom coursed through the veins of the person who was bitten, they had an uncontrollable urge to “dance”. This might go on for days until the dancer worked the venom out of their system.
Now, the time of the diagnosis has to be considered. After all, “dancing” may have been a loosely used term. Since there are obviously no videos from the 17th or 18th century, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact physical behavior that causes the diagnosis. It’s entirely possible that what was known as “dancing” may have actually been a seizure of some sort or even severe muscle spasms.
Tarantism in itself is an interesting disorder due to the symptoms and the timing. After all, tarantulas are still around today, yet tarantism isn’t. Does this mean that the venom has changed, a specific species has died out or perhaps it’s just the concept of dancing that has changed.
Is it possible that this disorder spawned other disorders like arachnophobia (intense fear of spiders)? After all, I’m a pretty bad dancer, but I love spiders. However, is this disorder was still in existence today, you can bet that I would avoid tarantulas at all costs just to avoid dancing, especially at inappropriate times!
Luckily, tarantism is one of those disorders whose cause is so specific that it happens to be easy to avoid and apparently doesn’t exist today anyhow.
Something else to consider is the stigma that has accompanied mental health disorders for so long. If someone were diagnosed as having tarantism, would that stigma follow them? Would all of their other behaviors be assessed for potential mental health disorders that had been spawned by the existence of tarantism? Considering the mental health treatments during those dark ages and even some of the mental health treatments used today, avoiding any contact with tarantulas could probably save a person a life altering event in the form of mental health happenings!