Treatments in Mental Health: A Brief History

Note: In case you missed my last post, I mentioned that with every entry I am going to include a picture from my personal life.  Whether related to the week’s topic or not, I hope to give you a small glimpse into who I am.  In honor of Sunday’s running of the Chicago Marathon, this week’s picture features “the bean.”  As mentioned previously, I traveled to Chicago for the first time this past August and fell in love with the city.

This week I am taking a small break from the topic of school counseling to share with you some interesting information I recently learned.  In a lecture by our Problem ID Teaching Assistant, Ari Elliot, we reviewed a brief history of psychiatric and mental health treatments and interventions.  It’s important for us to remember the history of mental illness treatment both because it was not very long ago, and because it is up to us to ensure that treatment continues to improve and does not revert to the horrible situations of the past (during the lecture, I could not help but make connections to the treatment of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I am going to summarize some of what we reviewed in class to emphasize my point:

Europe in the 1600’s: Those considered mentally insane were chained in dungeons with criminals, vagrants, and people with disabilities. They were beaten, given little food, and had no clothing.

Europe in the 1700’s to early 1800’s: Medical treatment was both a remedy and a punishment.  Treatments included bloodletting, purging and induced vomiting, cold water dunking (water torture), and the “swinging chair,” a contraption designed to spin the patient at high speeds.  The chair was thought useful in helping patients to vomit, evacuate the contents of their bladder, and lull them into a tranquilized state of mind.

Europe in the late 1800’s: Concern for the mentally ill increased.  The use of chains and shackles was forbidden.  Patients were removed from dungeons and allowed to stay in sunny rooms and walk outside.

The U.S. in the 1800’s: Mental patients were chained in basement cells.  Public viewing of patients was allowed for entertainment purposes.

1812: Benjamin Rush, a founding father of psychiatry, writes Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind. Saw mental illness as psychological and believed the cause to be abnormal blood circulation. Continued the use of bloodletting, spinning therapy, and the “tranquilizer chair,” a device used to control blood flow to the brain, reduce motor activity, and reduce the force and frequency of pulse.

The U.S. in the Late 1800’s: Moral treatment of patients was finally considered.  Spinning devices were banned and patients were given food and clothing.  Patients were trained to act in a civil manner in exchange for certain privileges.

The U.S. in the early 1900’s: The Era of Institutionalization.  Patients kept in massive, overcrowded asylums.  Treatment deteriorated.  The Eugenic movement led to viewing mental patients as contaminants of the gene pool.  Laws were enacted concerning compulsory sterilization.

20th Century Asylum Medication: Treatments included Insulin-induced coma, electro-convulsive therapy, lobotomy, and anti-psychotic medications.

Today, we use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to help diagnose patients.  While the DSM says nothing about treatment, there is hope that a proper diagnosis will lead to proper treatment.  Research is continually changing what we know about the causes and treatments of mental disorders.  I take what I learn about the history of mental illness and hope to always remember to respect and protect the person who may be suffering.

Article written by

Kelly Erin Ludovici

Kelly Erin Ludovici is a master’s student at the Warner School in the school and community counseling program. She is from the Syracuse area and graduated in May 2009 from SUNY Geneseo with a B.A. in psychology.

3 Responses

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  1. healthcarewithmarcus
    healthcarewithmarcus at |

    What a great article with historical facts. I can’t believe that being mentally ill was considered a crime even in early 19th! Glad that now such patients are protected and they have good treatment.

  2. Roger
    Roger at |

    I wonder if the patients are truly protected? Are the drugs any better? I live near what was once the largest state facility in Georgia, it has been closed for years. Where did all of the people go?

  3. Gavin
    Gavin at |

    It really is fascinating to see how differently mental health has been regarded throughout history…
    Glad we’re finally moving to a place where it is no longer taboo 🙂

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