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History of Mental Health

Mental health perception has changed over time due to advancing knowledge. These changes in mental health perception have shifted the view of mental health from blaming people to supporting them. Once upon a time, it was considered the norm to shock someone until they were no longer “insane”. Never mind using this treatment for a good reason; it is no…

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History of Mental Health

History of Mental Health

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Mental health perception has changed over time due to advancing knowledge. These changes in mental health perception have shifted the view of mental health from blaming people to supporting them. Once upon a time, it was considered the norm to shock someone until they were no longer “insane”. Never mind using this treatment for a good reason; it is no longer acceptable to call someone insane if they have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Let’s review the history of mental health to see how psychology has evolved into the discipline it is today.

  • We will start by reviewing the timeline of psychology.
  • Then we will briefly discuss the history of mental health whilst looking into the history of mental health stigma.
  • The history of mental health treatment will be reviewed, including aspects concerning the changes in mental health over time.

Timeline of Psychology

As knowledge has advanced through research, how mental health is understood and treated has also evolved. In the past, mental health problems were believed to be an act against God and human nature.

The way behaviour and mental health are understood changed according to the zeitgeist.

The zeitgeist is the current spiritual, educational spirit of the time concerning ideas and beliefs.

The zeitgeist influences the acceptance of particular views/ theories because we accept ideas easier based on existing knowledge rather than something we have to wrap our heads around.

It is generally accepted that biological and environmental problems cause mental issues today.

History of mental health an infographic displaying a timeline of mental health treatment strategies StudySmarterFig. 1. The zeitgeist has heavily influenced the accepted psychology approach over the years.

History of Mental Health Stigma

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mental health was thought to be due to the existence of the supernatural. People with mental health problems were considered to be acting against human nature, such as witchcraft.

People kept away and feared people with mental problems. Mental problems had such negative connotations that anyone who showed symptoms was killed or locked away.

Over time, the stigma of mental health has diminished as the understanding of mental health has evolved. In the 2000s, laws were enacted to reduce the stigma of the mentally ill and create equal opportunity.

The Mental Health Act (1983) was introduced to establish rights and equal opportunities for people with mental illnesses and was majorly updated in 2007.

However, mental health stigma remains, especially in some communities.

In some Asian communities, seeking therapy is frowned upon. Instead, parents may force their children to participate in religious events to ‘get rid of the evil spirits causing the mental health problems’.

History of Mental Illness Timeline

The timeline of popular paradigms used to understand mental illness are:

The Freudian Approach was introduced in the early 20th century.

Sigmund Freud advocated the psychodynamic approach, which assumes we can understand mental health through childhood experiences and conflicts/imbalances in the unconscious mind.

Later in the mid-20th century, Skinner’s behavioural approach was accepted.

This period saw a shift toward psychology as a science. Psychologists sought to understand behaviour through observation. The behaviour therapy approach assumes that behaviour is learned from experience via forming associations or reinforcement.

The behavioural approach uses classical conditioning principles to explain behaviour as learned by forming associations between a stimulus and response.

And reinforcement ideas are based on operant conditioning principles, arguing that people will repeat the behaviour if rewarded and deter from behaviour that is punished.

The cognitive revolution has heavily influenced society from 1960 to the present.

This era saw is characterised by a revolution in technology. The zeitgeist revolved primarily around technology.

Cognitive psychologists proposed the information processing model to explain mental health and behaviour. The model states that humans take in information from their senses and that the brain’s mental processes (called cognition) process that information. As a result, behaviour is outputted, similar to a computer.

From the Late 1970s to the present – the medical model has influenced how mental health is understood.

The medical model explains behaviour using theories from the biological approach. This approach states that mental illnesses have a physical cause, such as:

  • Chemical imbalances.

  • Neurotransmitters dysfunction.

  • Physical trauma.

  • Brain abnormalities.

Table 1. A Summary of the history of mental illness timeline.
Approach Year Introduced
Psychodynamic Early -20th Century
Skinner’s Behavioural ApproachMid-20th Century
The Cognitive Approach1960 - Present
The Medical Model The late 1970s

History of Mental Health Treatment

Let’s go over a brief history of mental health treatment strategies.

In 6500 BC, spiritual entities such as evil spirits were thought to cause mental illnesses. And people with mental illnesses were considered possessed beings.

Possession by evil spirits was seen as a result of punishment by God; the typical methods of treatment were trepanation and exorcism.

Some mental illnesses, such as epilepsy, were not considered a disease but evidence of witchcraft. People accused of witchcraft were burned.

In the 1500s, epilepsy began to be understood as a mental illness, which meant that people thought to be witches were no longer being burned.

From 800 to 400 CE, physicians theorised that mental illnesses were due to physical causes. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, believed that ‘insanity’ resulted from an imbalance of body fluids.

Hippocrates suggested that certain bodily fluids were associated with certain behaviours:

  1. Blood – brave, playful, and hopeful.
  2. Yellow bile – impulsive.
  3. Black bile – introverted and serious.
  4. Phlegm – patient.

According to Hippocrates, depression could be diagnosed if people had elevated levels of black bile. Laxatives were used to treat the excess of black bile, which was thought to lower depression levels.

Hippocrates played a major role in the history of mental illness; it was no longer assumed people were to blame themselves or that non-physical causes, such as evil spirits, were behind it. Mental health evolved toward science.

As a result of this change, the first psychiatric hospital opened in Baghdad in 792 BC. The hospital believed patients deserved inpatient treatment rather than the previous barbaric treatments.

From 1200 to the 1700s, views on mental illness went so far that people with mental problems were committed to insane asylums. In the asylums, people were treated inhumanely. They were locked up, chained, and people were rude to them.

Religion and punishment still dominated this era, which influenced the treatment of mental illness.

Typical inhumane treatments during this era were dousing the patients with ice-cold or hot water, using gyrating chairs to ‘shake the mental illness out of patients’ and chaining patients against their will in poor conditions.

History of Mental Health: Contemporary Interventions

During the early 1900s, people began to view asylums as a poor way to treat patients. Psychiatry was recognised in the medical field. Freud presented his ideas within the framework of the psychodynamic approach. The move toward the psychodynamic approach brought with it various methods of treating mental health, including:

  • Psychoanalysis: Psychologists and therapists work together to resolve internal conflicts in the psyche that early childhood trauma causes.

  • Hypnosis: A trained clinician helps the client tap into the subconscious mind to uncover hidden memories at the root of psychological problems. Whether the psychoanalytic treatment works is still debated.

  • Dream analysis.

In dream analysis, a client keeps a record of dreams. A trained psychologist then interprets dreams to uncover hidden meanings. These unconscious hidden messages are theorised as the cause of dysfunctional behaviour. The therapist and client work together to resolve these hidden conflicts.

The psychodynamic approach to mental health has been widely criticised for lacking credibility, verifiability, and falsifiability. For this reason, the paradigm of the zeitgeist has turned away from psychodynamics. It remained a popular mental health intervention until the mid-1900s. However, there are still many psychotherapists today.

The fall of the widely held belief that the psychodynamic approach was the best method for psychiatric intervention paved the way for the medical model to take its place. The medical model remains the common approach to treating mental illness.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy and drug therapy are the common interventions used nowadays.

The medical model uses treatment methods such as:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): Electroshocks are administered at a safe, low voltage. This treatment is not used to treat bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. It is a treatment that is not commonly used.

  • Psychopharmacology: The use of medications to alter the chemical balance of neurotransmitters and hormones that may cause mental health problems.

Rosenhan (1973) on Being Sane in Insane Places

Now that we’ve understood the stigma and how the history of mental health, let’s see what research says about diagnosing/“labelling” people with mental illnesses. Rosenhan (1973) investigated whether people can tell whether someone has mental problems or not.

Eight pseudopatients (people without mental illness but pretending to be ill) were admitted to different psychiatric hospitals. Before hospitalisation, participants described symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations, to psychiatrists.

Once admitted, participants stopped pretending and began behaving as they normally do. Participants had to convince hospital staff they were ‘fit for discharge’.

The study found that all the pseudopatients were admitted to hospitals and stayed between 7 and 52 days. Seven participants were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the other with manic-depressive psychosis.

Signs of distress shown by participants were considered a result of their ‘illness’ and not the current situation by the hospital staff. The pseudopatients reported feelings of powerlessness and depersonalisation.

Although this is a very controversial study, it suggests that being misdiagnosed with a mental illness can contribute to other issues that can lead to various mental health issues.

History of Mental Health: Rosenhan: Experiment 2

Hospital staff were informed of their diagnostic errors and that one or more pseudopatients might request admission to the hospital within three months (no pseudopatient did so).

Staff had to rate new patients admitted to the hospitals on a scale of 1–10, whether they thought the person was a pseudopatient.

The study found of 193 true patients, 41 were hospital staff thought to be pseudopatients. At least one psychiatrist thought 23 patients were pseudopatients. And 19 were mistaken for pseudopatients by a psychiatrist and another staff member.

From the research, it can be concluded that:

  • It is difficult to distinguish between ‘sane’ and ‘mentally ill’ people in psychiatric institutions – psychiatric diagnoses are imprecise.
  • Patients in hospitals experience powerlessness and depersonalisation.
  • All their behaviour is attributed to their illness rather than unfair situations or other factors.
  • Staff are insensitive to patients’ feelings.

A strength of this study is that it has high external validity because hospital staff did not know they were participating in the experiments. Therefore, it was likely their behaviour was consistent with the facts.

The study shows the lack of reliability and validity in diagnosing mental illness.

In addition, many variables were controlled, resulting in internal validity, e.g., the pseudopatients all presented the same way to the staff when attempting to be admitted to the hospitals.

Some weaknesses, however, are that the study was conducted in America, in American hospitals, so the results cannot be generalised to other countries. The study did not use a representative sample, and ethical issues were raised (deceived hospital staff and staff were not asked if they wanted to participate in the studies).

History of Mental Health - Key takeaways

  • The history of mental illness timeline has progressed due to changes in the zeitgeist.
  • The history of mental health stigma has evolved from blaming the individual to accepting individuals and treating them as equals.
  • The history of mental health treatments has changed from using barbaric treatments to mainly using cognitive-behavioural therapy and drug therapy.
  • Mental health perception has changed several times due to advances in knowledge.
  • Rosenhan (1973) conducted a study investigating misdiagnosis’s chances and effects.

Frequently Asked Questions about History of Mental Health

History has noted mental health existed in ancient Greeks. However, it is difficult to identify precisely the history of Mental Illness timeline and origins.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, mental health was thought of in terms of the result of the existence of the supernatural. People with mental health issues were thought of as acts against human nature, such as witchery. People stayed away and feared people with mental health problems. 

Social history in mental health is when a trained psychologist considers patients' social backgrounds, such as their family and job and how they affect mental health. 

Although it is difficult to establish the history of mental health stigma can be dated to the 18th and 19th centuries when people with mental health illnesses were thought of as evil supernatural beings. 

Over time mental health perception has changed in terms of:

  • How mental health is understood.
  • The available treatment options. 
  • Less stigma surrounding mental health problems.

Final History of Mental Health Quiz

History of Mental Health Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is psychiatric nosology?

Show answer


Psychiatric nosology is another term used for the classification of mental disorders. 

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What is the reason for classifying mental disorders?

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The reasons for classifying mental disorders are:

  • It allows people to identify the support/intervention they need to alleviate symptoms.
  • Clinical purposes – researchers can ensure they are measuring the mental disorder of interest.

Show question


How do the ICD and DSM differ? 

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The ICD and DSM differ as: 

  • The ICD allows the trained clinicians to make some judgement in diagnosis, whereas the DSM does not.
  • WHO designed the ICD for multiple countries. APA created the DSM for use in America.
  • The DSM requires mental disorders to be clinically proven to exist. However, this is not always the case in the ICD.

Show question


What type of mental disorders are characterised by trouble sleeping, negative thoughts, and fatigue? 

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Affective disorders.

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Is anxiety disorder classified as a mood disorder? 

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What type of disorder is schizophrenia? 

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Psychotic disorder.

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What information does the DSM provide? 

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The DSM provides information on:

  • Categories of mental disorders.
  • Symptoms lists for each mental disorder.
  • Details of how long symptoms need to last for a diagnosis.

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Who created the DSM? 

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Show question


What did Wilson et al. (2013) find? 

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In a study by Wilson et al. (2013), 75% of participants met the criteria for ASD based on the revised version of ICD-10. In contrast, 42% of the participants were diagnosed with ASD when DSM-5 was used for diagnosis. This shows that the DSM may be more restrictive than the ICD. Or, the DSM may be more precise at diagnosis.

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What can be inferred from the Wilson et al. (2013) study? 

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From the Wilson et al. (2013) study, it can be inferred that the DSM may be more restrictive than the ICD or that the DSM may be more precise at diagnosis. 

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What is co-morbidity? 

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Co-morbidity is the overlap of symptoms between mental disorders.

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What are the indicators of the diagnostic manuals being a valid measure to diagnose mental disorders? 

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The diagnostic manuals can be argued to be valid as they are regularly updated and based on evidence.

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What are the issues of the differences between the ICD and DSM? 

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The issues of differences between the ICD and DSM suggest the diagnostic manuals may not be reliable measures. 

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How may diagnosis of mental disorders affect individuals in school or workplace settings? 

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Although laws have been established. Diagnosing mental disorders may lead to prejudice and unequal opportunities in school, the workplace and society.

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What are the seven major types of mental disorders? 

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The seven major types of mental disorders are:

  1. Mood/affective disorders.
  2. Anxiety disorders. 
  3. Psychotic disorders. 
  4. Eating disorders. 
  5. Trauma disorders. 
  6. Substance-related disorders. 
  7. Personality disorders.

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