How Has Our Understanding of Mental Health Evolved Over Time?

Mental health issues are nothing new. Since humanity evolved from the apes, some of us have struggled with mental illness. Many of the population have minor mental health struggles, such as anxiety or depression. A smaller percentage have a severe mental health disorder such as bipolar, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or borderline personality disorder. Luckily, most serious conditions are treatable with modern medication and therapy. However, society’s understanding of mental health and mental illness hasn’t always been how it is today. It has evolved over time throughout the centuries. This informative article will share how our understanding of mental health has evolved over time. These days, it’s actually quite common for people to want to study a mental health certificate online, or learn more about mental illness to support their loved ones. Read on to learn more about this fascinating topic.

Mental Health in Ancient Times

As mentioned above, mental illness has existed as long as humans have. Although the evidence is patchy, ancient beliefs about mental illness often blamed supernatural causes, such as demonic or spirit possession, curses, sorcery or the vengeance of God. The remedies ranged from mystical intervention to a practice known as trephining, which is boring a hole in the skull using crude stone implements. When this practice wasn’t used, ancient priest doctors in societies like Mesopotamia would use religious rituals, including prayer, atonement, exorcisms and incantations, to banish the spirits and demons they believed caused the mental illness.

Care for the Mentally Ill Throughout History

In past eras, a patient’s family was typically responsible for their care and custody. The first mental hospital wasn’t founded until the year 792 in Baghdad. In Europe, caring for a mentally ill family member was seen as a source of humiliation and shame, and many families resorted to hiding away their siblings, mothers, fathers and children in cellars and cages or abandoning them on the streets.

However, eventually, some options for those suffering from mental illness emerged, although they were harsh, cruel and traumatic by today’s standards. Some of these options included forcing mentally ill patients into workhouses, where they were given room, board and food in exchange for performing work. During this era of history, the clergy of various churches played a role in treating mental illness when medical practice was enmeshed with religion.

More affluent families would send their loved ones into a private home operated by the clergy, who would offer comfort and treatment. Eventually, these options were replaced by asylums.

The Era of Asylums

In 1406, in Valencia, Spain, the first inpatient psychiatric hospital was opened. However, this was not a joyous occasion, as asylums like this one, which sprang up all over the Western world, offered no meaningful treatment or care for the mentally ill. In fact, they offered inhumane conditions, cruel abuse and torture. These institutions were prisons in all but name and, in some instances, offered worse treatment than penal colonies or jails. The mentally ill patients were hidden from society and their families and treated harshly by the staff.

Some “treatments” included bloodletting, leeching, induced vomiting and other horrific experiences such as hot and cold water dousing. Physical restraints such as straightjackets were also used.

However, as word spread about these conditions and “treatment”, a call for reform rose in civilised quadrants, and slowly, these practices were phased out.

The Rise of Moral Treatment

It wasn’t until 1792 in Paris, France, that one of the most pivotal reforms in how society treats and understands mental illness occurred. Phillipe Pinel, a French doctor, developed a theory that mentally ill people needed kindness, care and therapy to improve their conditions. He took control of an asylum in France, ordered that it be cleaned, unrestrained patients, and given rooms with fresh air, sunlight and exercise. In England, the Quaker society undertook a similar reform to British asylums. This was known as moral treatment.

Sigmund Freud

There is no discussion of how mental health and humanity’s understanding of it is complete without mentioning Freud. This renowned Austrian psychiatrist developed his revolutionary theory of psychoanalysis and “talking cures”. He theorised that conversation could open a doorway to the patient’s unconscious mind, giving rise to repressed thoughts and feelings causing mental illness. This method proved so influential that some therapists still use Freudian psychoanalysis methods today.

Mental Illness in the 21st Century

With the influence of Freud and his discipline, Jung, mental health perceptions and treatment continued to change into the modern era. Psychiatric medications, such as Thorazine, Lithium, Valium and Prozac, were all developed in the 21st century, and psychiatrists used a combination of medication and talking therapy to treat mental illness. Hundreds of medications are now available to treat a range of mental illnesses, from anti-anxiety drugs to antidepressants, antipsychotics and more.

Furthermore, inpatient psychiatric facilities stopped holding people for months or even years and began to work towards releasing patients, with support in the community from therapists taking place.

Modern Mental Health Professionals

In today’s age, there are a variety of professional roles that treat and support those living with mental illness. From psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, peer support workers, counsellors and social workers, many people study for years to become qualified mental health professionals.

Societies Understanding Has Changed

Another change in how our understanding of mental health has evolved is that there is less stigma surrounding mental illness in society now. Many public figures, from politicians to sportspeople and actors, have disclosed struggles with mental health, and it is no longer shameful to seek treatment for mental illness. This is a positive change from the history described in this article.

In Summary

This informative article has shared how humanity’s understanding of mental health has evolved from ancient history to today. Thankfully, we’ve made a lot of progress in how mentally ill people are treated, perceived and supported.

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