By: S. Costa Franco
Currently, through scientific investigation and observation, we understand more about mental health than ever before. It is now widely viewed as an important issue, being that in the United States alone, one in five adults experience some form of mental illness, which sums to 52.9 million people in 2020, whilst 17% of children aged 6 to 17 also face some type of mental disorder. Mental illness can range from depression, anxiety, and ADHD/ADD, to bipolar disorder, dementia, and schizophrenia. Thankfully, all of these issues are now being addressed and diagnosed more rapidly, and millions of individuals are getting the treatment they require, but it is crucial to remember that this scale of awareness was not always existent. In the past, mental illness was rarely discussed and barely understood, and treatment methods were ineffective, lacked reliable medical research, and were in many cases, inhumane. Let us explore the timeline of mental health treatment, the impacts of this, and how our collective understanding of mental health has developed over time.
The History of Mental Health
Many perceive mental health as a phenomenon that has recently emerged, but this is far from true. Mental illness issues have been traced back to the early beginnings of human history, but the term "mental hygiene", used to address such issues, was only coined in the 19th century. Some doctors have speculated that famous figures such as Edgar Allen Poe, Winston Churchill, and Beethoven all struggled with some mental health disorder. Nevertheless, in the past, mental health was viewed as a very taboo subject, and although there are remnants of this approach to mental health in our present society, our comprehension of such issues has greatly progressed. For instance, disorders that we now recognize as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, were once deemed psychosis, hysteria, shellshock and even demonic possession. Throughout the Middle Ages, those believed to be suffering from mental illnesses were made into outcasts and were viewed as "crazy" or "unfit for social interaction". Treatment was rarely provided, and in the cases in which it was, it consisted of exorcisms or malnutrition, which was never helpful to the patient. Even today, for some, it is challenging to grasp the challenges faced by patients of mental illness, but as our society becomes more vocal about these issues, and scientific research improves, treatments have gradually become more accurate, and with platforms such as social media, individuals can see their struggles reflected in those around them, and hence, not feel so isolated.
The Evolution of Mental Illness Treatment
Pre 18th Century
As early as the 16th Century, surgical treatment methods were used to treat individuals suffering from mental disorders. These procedures tended to be very invasive and dangerous, in which doctors would sometimes create holes in the skulls of patients exhibiting signs of mental illness or sever their neural connections. Many types of mental illness were deemed as "demonic possession", and mental health patients would sometimes be alienated from society, either being placed in prison or in some form of mental hospital. But the term "hospital" must not be thought to refer to medically efficient institutions. On the contrary, these "hospitals" were cruel, isolated environments, and mental health treatment facilities have greatly evolved today from what they used to be in this period of time.
18th and 19th Centuries
In this span of time, "insane asylums" as they were known, became very popular, and were used as a means of "punishment" for individuals with mental health disorders, as if they were committing some form of wrongdoing. New methods of treatment also emerged, such as Freudian therapeutic means, lobotomies and other psychosurgeries, antipsychotic drugs and other forms of medication, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). While some of these methods are still used today, such as the electroshock therapy, others, such as invasive surgery, were slowly perceived to be morally incorrect, and became obsolete. This was a period of time in which the way mental illness was viewed began to change significantly, and when activists such as American nurse Dorothea Dix, born in Maine in 1802, arose. Dix in particular fought for the implementation of morally adequate mental institutions and worked with soldiers at war. Still, despite these changing attitudes, the stigma around mental health lingered. Women were often deemed "hysterical" and were locked up if they displayed signs of mental illness, and soldiers suffering from PTSD were often shamed, viewed as "weak", or even accused of making up their symptoms.
Nowadays, due to improving medical and communicational technology, far more adequate methods of treatment are used. Conversational therapy is frequently implemented to allow patients to be diagnosed and talk through their issues, while group therapy can help individuals with addictions or other mental health disorders find peers they identify with and discuss their struggles. Medical drugs are also prescribed in some, usually more grave, cases, and have become far more efficient when treating each patient. But most significant is the fact that the approach surrounding mental health has changed, and continues to change, so that more and more individuals can feel comfortable to talk about their struggles and feel as though they are not alone in the challenges they face. It is this form of communication that can help everyone get the treatment they require.
It is easy to assume that certain aspects of our society have always been this way, and as a result, we are often misguided when it comes to human history. We must always take a step back and analyze the truth behind our collective past, learn from previous mistakes, and always seek improvement in the future. In the case of mental health, it is important to keep learning about this evermore pressing issue, be open to hearing and helping those around us, and deconstruct stigmas that surround these societal taboos. Mental illness is something that many of us face and must not be taken lightly. Let us respect our own struggles and those of everyone around us, so as to make society a safer and more open space for all.