History of mental illness

Our approach to mental illness treatment has radically changed throughout time. Some of the methods to treat mental illness from the middle ages up to the 20th century might even shock you. This article details the surprising history of mental illness treatment. It also covers how our care options differ in the present day.

The History of Mental Illness

Although mental health issues might seem like a recent phenomenon, mental illness has been observed throughout history. The term “mental hygiene” spread in the medical field starting in the 19th century. Prior to this, there wasn’t an official term to describe emotional or behavioral struggles that have existed for ages.

Historians and mental health professionals have ample evidence of the history of mental illness through documented cases. These cases cover a wide array of issues, including anxiety and alcoholism. In fact, many researchers theorize that well-known historical figures such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Winston Churchill and more all struggled with mental disorders.

edgar allen poe history of mental illness
Edgar Allen Poe was believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, recurrent depression, and substance abuse.

Mental illnesses were present long before we had names or diagnoses for specific disorders. Disorders we now know as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder have had names such as hysteria, shell shock, psychosis, and, in some cases, demonic possession.

When the 20th century came around, society finally acknowledged the existence of mental illness and doctors started to treat these conditions. Yet, society’s perceptions of mental health concerns still had a long way to go.

Perceptions of Mental Illness Across History

Modern treatments for mental health disorders seem more effective and humane as a result of our evolved perceptions. While this increased awareness benefits us now, the perceptions of mental health issues were extremely dangerous in the past.

In the middle ages, mentally ill patients often became outcasts, left to their own devices in society. In some instances, people in the middle ages viewed those with mental illness as witches or proof of demonic possession. The supernatural ideas did not stop there. As the centuries went on, people with mental illnesses felt more and more discrimination. Too often, these harmful ideas became deadly.

When treatment did occur, it never actually helped. For example, treatment for “demonic possessions” almost appeared as torture. Exorcisms, malnutrition, and inappropriate medications all appeared as treatment methods for people with mental illnesses.

The idea that people with mental illness were “crazy” or “other-worldly” influenced the lack of effective treatment methods. Even now, many families and communities find it difficult to comprehend the struggles of mental illness. Oftentimes, this makes it challenging for patients to seek out or learn about the various forms of treatment available.

As time went on, however, we did begin to understand mental illness more and more as a society. Mental health advocates like Dorothea Dix, social media movements, and advanced medical technology all allowed us to view the physiological evidence of mental illnesses.

As a result, our treatment methods have evolved greatly throughout time.

The First Forms of Treatment

Mental health services have not always benefited patients who needed treatment. Let’s go through the timeline of mental illness treatment to highlight key moments in history that have gotten us to where we are today.

Pre-18th Century

In the 16th century, many doctors split mental health issues into two categories: demonic possession or physical illness. When a physical ailment or abnormality presented itself in a patient with mental illness, treatments often focused on fixing the physical symptoms. For example, if someone with a mental illness had a stomachache, doctors might encourage the use of medications, herbal supplements, and lifestyle changes. 

As early as the 16th century, doctors also performed intense surgeries on patients exhibiting mental health concerns. Historical documents show that these surgeries often involved invasive measures, such as creating holes in one’s skull.

history of mental illness lobotomy tools
Tools used for lobotomy.

During this time, non-surgical approaches to treatment also began to surface. However, these methods also had serious repercussions on patients. In many scenarios, these treatments worked at a socioeconomic level to shut out mentally ill people from society. For example, people with mental illnesses would often find themselves in jail, and would never receive proper treatment in their new lives as convicted criminals.

This form of societal removal also included the implementation of mental hospitals, which have evolved in modern days to provide moral treatment methods to treat people with mental illnesses. But before the 18th century, these hospitals became cruel environments of isolation.

Emerging Treatments in the 19th and 20th Centuries

In the following centuries, treating mentally ill patients reached all-time highs, as well as all-time lows. The use of social isolation through psychiatric hospitals and “insane asylums,” as they were known in the early 1900s, were used as punishment for people with mental illnesses.

In addition to isolation, the 19th and 20th century brought new forms of addressing mental health concerns, including:

  • Freudian therapeutic techniques, such as the “talking cure.”
  • Electroshock, a.k.a electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
  • Antipsychotic drugs and other medications
  • Lobotomy and other forms of psychosurgery

Many of these treatment methods came about as a way to fix society’s perception of those with mental illnesses, rather than actually helping. Treatments like the lobotomy started to be viewed as morally wrong. In turn, harmful psychosurgery methods became less popular and eventually stopped being used. 

However, other treatments simply evolved to become more effective and less harmful. In fact, patients with mental illness to this day still use ECT to treat severe cases of mood disorders. Some celebrities, including Carrie Fisher, have sworn that the modern version of ECT is the most effective treatment for disruptive mental illness symptoms.

The Enduring Stigma of Mental Illness

During this time period, soldiers of the first and second World Waras well as oppressed minoritieswere often diagnosed with “hysteria” or “neurosis”. Symptoms of these disorders included:

  • Shortness of breath or chest pains
  • Chronic stomach aches
  • Fainting spells
  • Increased anxiety
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness, paranoia, and hopelessness
  • Substance abuse

These symptoms were often viewed as shameful and dramatic. Sometimes, symptoms were even considered to be made up by the patient. This stigma has especially applied to women throughout history. Many women who experienced symptoms of mental illness were written off as products of the trend of hysteria. One well-known short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, details the horrors of being locked away for treatment: a prisoner in her home and in her mind.

Activism for Mental Health

activism for mental health

Today, the stigma surrounding mental illness has lessened with the new knowledge we have on the subject. This has partly stemmed from the mental health advocates who saw the benefits of offering hospitalization for mentally ill patients.

Dorothea Dix was a revolutionary leader in the mental health movement that started during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although she based herself in the United States, Dix traveled around the world to deliver her message. She even managed to convince Pope Pius IX to examine the unjust ways people with mental illnesses were treated.

Dix believed in hospitalizing people with mental illnesses who needed treatment. However, she demanded better conditions in these institutions. Additionally, Dix worked to advocate for women’s rights, which directly helped to decrease the cases of hysteria diagnosed as we moved to the 20th century and beyond.

Dix’s work didn’t end there. It continued throughout and past her lifetime as more institutions changed their treatment approaches to ensure that a patient’s chance of success after discharge would increase.

History does not necessarily highlight one singular, effective form of treatment for people with mental illnesses. Yet, it does illustrate how our ideas on mental health have evolved alongside our approaches for it.

What Does Mental Health Care Look Like Now?

Treatment for mental illness has come a long way throughout history. With the first approaches to treatment resembling torture as well as the earlier incredulity of the existence of mental illness, it’s easy to feel as though there might not be a good treatment method mental health care.

However, our modern look at mental illness has improved tremendously. Former activists like Dorothea Dix and current mental health awareness movements on social media have changed the conversation. Now, treatments handle mental illness knowledgeably, effectively, and morally.

The programs offered at Baton Rouge Behavioral Hospital provide up-to-date treatment methods to patients in the Louisiana and Southern Mississippi regions. Most importantly, our dedicated staff will collaborate with patients and their families to create a collective approach to healing.

Start Your Journey to Recovery Today

For more information on the services we offer patients, contact us online, by email, or with a phone call today. Our admissions number is 225-300-8470. The history of your recovery begins today.

Contact our Admissions staff at (225) 300-8470 to discuss our treatment programs or reach out online.

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