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A Brief History of Treatment for Mental Illness in the US

Updated on February 3, 2014

In many cultures throughout history, mental health disorders were treated as contagious illnesses, and those who were unfortunate enough to be affected were often shunned from society. In religious societies (and nearly all were), mental illness was often seen as a sign of demonic possession or evil in a human being. Because of this irrational fear of what they did not understand, people in ancient cultures tended to banish the ill from society and often condemn them to life in unsanitary, cruel, and often deadly institutions.

Vincent VanGogh, the artist behind this painting "Starry Night," was thought to be a victim of mental illness.
Vincent VanGogh, the artist behind this painting "Starry Night," was thought to be a victim of mental illness.

Born Under the Moon

The treatments imposed on the mentally ill were often barbaric, and ‘patients’ were seen more as inmates than as a sick person deserving of care. During the early stages of American science and medicine, starting from the colonial period, the mentally ill as well as many people who simply acted against society’s norms were referred to as ‘lunatics.’ Lunatic comes from the word ‘luna,’ meaning moon, as it was believed that the people became mentally ill by being born under a full moon.

These” lunatics” were often sent to asylums, often for the rest of their lives, as treatment and rehabilitation were often not the goal of these barbaric facilities. Asylums were often managed and run by untrained personnel operating under the supervision of doctors who would today be considered absolutely sadistic. Patients were treated as inmates, and in some facilities were even referred to as such.

Patients were frequently divided into two categories; maniacs and melancholy. The oft-used treatments for patients who received these diagnoses were usually forms of shock-treatment, like ice-baths and electroshock therapy. These brutal practices were often meant to “shock” the patients back into what the doctors felt was ‘normal’ behavior. Needless to say, this treatment was not often successful, and unfortunately for those patients, very few people in the outside world knew or cared what went on inside of these asylums; most were happy enough knowing that those who weren’t socially acceptable were simply removed from society’s view.

Progress Continues, Slowly But Surely

The initially movement to examine and not simply ostracize mentally ill persons started with the Darwinian philosophy. With the movement away religious explanations came a more open approach to behaviors and patterns that were previously seen as supernaturally influenced. Scientists began to realize that severe differences in a person’s thinking or behavior could have biological factors which must be examined.

The ‘Mental Health Movement’ officially began in the United States in 1909, when the ‘National Committee for Mental Hygiene’ was erected. The main purpose of this committee was not only to diagnose mental disorders, but also to treat and prevent certain mental conditions – a revolutionary motion for any area of health during this time. The committee was founded by Clifford W. Beers, who was once a psychiatric patient himself. After his release from a less-than-hospitable facilities, Beers crusaded for a more open and understanding take on mental health and psychiatric issues.

The first action proposed by this committee was, however, a motion to congress for a mandatory evaluation of all immigrants entering the US. The immigrants who did not pass the evaluation were promptly sent back to their port of departure, and often institutionalized without notice to their families. This initial psychiatric health movement was unfortunately more of a motion to serve the interests of conservative America rather than actually help people with disabilities.

Today, the Doctor is In
Today, the Doctor is In | Source

Mental Health Today

Mental health has come a long way from the brutal and barbaric methods of treatment in the past. Today, many Americans seek the aide of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists for any number of issues. Not only are major problems like psychosis and trauma addressed, but less apparent issues such as depression and anxiety are treated as well, often with the care and understanding of specialists in the field of mental health. Society has progressed exponentially in just a few short decades, and we may be grateful that in our world, we are offered medicine and therapy for the issues we don’t fully understand, rather than having someone use unsanitary tools to scrape out a part of our brain. In comparison – we have it good these days.


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