Individuals have experienced mental illness since the beginning of time. Overwhelming anxiety, depression, traumatic early life experiences or psychotic disorders have always been a part of every society, because mental health disorders do not discriminate. Meanwhile, various treatments have sought to address mental illness, from more barbaric and ineffective methods in earlier centuries to more humane and effective treatment methods in modern times. Has that meant that the prevalence of mental illness has changed over the centuries, and if so, how?
Has the Prevalence of Mental Illness Changed Over the Centuries?
One common theme in that history is stigma and stigmatization, which to this day can prevent people from seeking help. Research and a better understanding of mental illness as a disease have decreased the stigma, allowing more individuals to seek treatment.
Societal factors can also affect the prevalence of mental illness. Today alcohol and substance abuse, fast-paced environments, heavy workloads, and other issues in modern society adversely affect the mental wellbeing of many individuals each year. According to the National Institutes of Health, mental illness hasn’t necessarily gotten worse over the centuries, but there are more contributing factors in modern times affecting more people.
What Were the First Efforts to Treat Mental Illness Before the 17th Century?
The first efforts to treat the mentally ill were often barbaric and unforgiving. Mental illness was often viewed as a religious punishment or associated with demonic possession. Treatments before the 17th century included trephination and bloodletting and purging. Trephination was one of the earliest known treatments for the mentally ill. The practice began about 7,000 years ago and was implemented by removing part of the skull using an auger or saw. The practice was used to treat headaches, mental illness, and demonic possession. Little evidence of this practice remains, so not much is known about it.
Rooted in Greek medicine, bloodletting and purging gained popularity during the 1600s. The English physician Thomas Willis developed the process of bloodletting and purging based on the belief that there was a relationship between internal imbalances and mental illness, and that bleeding, purging, and even vomiting could correct those imbalances and heal mental disorders. Such tactics were also used to treat a variety of other health conditions, including stroke, diabetes, cancer, smallpox, and cholera.
Mental Health Treatment Landscape in the 1700s
Isolation was the preferred treatment of the mentally ill at the beginning of the 18th century. It was a common belief that the mentally ill were dangerous and should be kept away from society and hidden from their families and communities. Asylums became widespread during the 1700s. Such institutions were often inhumane, not to mention overcrowded and unclean.
The Bath of Surprise was also used during the 1700s to sedate patients. It involved dunking patients in ice-cold water without warning. It was effective but brutal— and developed into hydrotherapy, a continuous bath in cold water performed with the patient strapped to the tub. The bath could last as long several hours or even days.
Mental Health Treatment Landscape in the 1800s
The prevalence of institutionalized care for the mentally ill continued throughout the 19th century. Treatments within asylums were barbaric and often caused physical harm to the patient with little to no relief of their symptoms.
Confinement was a popular treatment for patients who were experiencing a nervous breakdown. Confines included straightjackets, chains, and the horrifying cage. This inhumane treatment required the patient to be placed in a narrow and cramped cage. The patient would be locked in the cage for hours until they were sedated. Once they were calm, they would be removed from the cage.
The rotating chair was also a popular treatment in the 1800s for the mentally ill. It was based on the belief that spinning to induce vertigo would cause a purge through nausea and vomiting. The intensity of the rotation was based on the level of mental illness the doctor was treating.
Mental Health Treatment in the 1900s
Lobotomy was once considered a miracle cure for mental health issues. It was a highly traumatic brain surgery carried out by inserting a sharp instrument in the brain to sever certain neural connections. It was once believed that such surgery cured depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Although this treatment did appear to help some who had mental illness, it also was considered inhumane and ineffective. It also left many patients with irreparable brain damage.
Electroconvulsive therapy was first used in the mid-1900s to treat mental illness. It was a scary treatment, not only for the patients but the doctors as well. Electroshock was used to induce seizures which, in turn, was believed to relieve mental illness.
Early use of electroshock therapy was considered unsafe because the amount of electricity coursing through the patient’s brain was enough to cause death. The study of electroshock therapy (ECT therapy) led to a better understanding of how to properly administer the treatment, so that today it is much more effective at treating various mental health conditions, with much fewer side effects.
The development of certain drugs to treat mental illness gained prominence in the late 1900s. The use of these drugs meant fewer inpatient hospitalizations and the end of barbaric treatments.
The Mental Health Treatment in the 2000s and Beyond
The mental health treatment landscape in the 21st century has greatly evolved and has given patients a wide variety of options, including many types of medications and therapies. As the understanding of mental illness continues to develop, so do the methods for treating it.
Mental illness can represent a range—from some symptoms of depression to many and more severe symptoms. Treatment can depend on the severity of the illness. Inpatient treatment entails 24/7 supervision and an intensive daily regimen of group therapies, in addition to medication. Today most state and federal hospitals focus on short-term care.
Counseling services and other treatment methods for mental illness are tailored to an individual’s specific needs. Case management is often used to coordinate services for individuals seeking treatment. A case manager can assess, plan, and facilitate recovery for an individual suffering from mental health issues. Support groups are another great resource for individuals who are experiencing mental anguish. Such groups provide a safe place for meeting with other like-minded individuals who share the common goal of getting better.
Psychotherapy is a popular treatment for mental illness in modern times. A trained mental health professional provides a therapeutic approach to mental illness by exploring the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the patient to develop a plan for improving the patient’s mental health and wellbeing. Psychotherapy can include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic behavior therapy, and exposure therapy, among still other approaches.
The stigma surrounding mental health disorders has diminished somewhat in modern society. This has paved the way for those suffering to seek help which is more readily available and much more humane than previous efforts at treating those with mental illness.
According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020, 20.3 percent of adults had received mental health treatment in the previous 12 months. Of those adults, 16.5 percent were taking medications for their mental health. Such statistics speak to how common mental health conditions are.
Mental health and wellbeing should not be ignored. Depression may be mild or severe. Mental health disorders such as schizophrenia must be treated by trained professionals to ensure the patient has good quality of life and can function at optimal levels. FHE Health provides compassionate care in a therapeutic setting where treatment leads to positive results, allowing patients to achieve success upon completion of treatment.
If you are struggling with depression or another mental health issue, the compassionate team at FHE is standing by to help. Get ready to take your life back and start living again. Give us a call today to discuss the treatment options available.