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History of Mental Health

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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. We will briefly discuss the history of mental health whilst looking into the history of mental health stigma, the history of mental health timeline including the changes in mental health that have occurred over time, and the history of mental health treatments.

Timeline of mental health

As knowledge has advanced through research, the way 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. Today, it is generally accepted that biological and environmental problems cause mental issues.


The defining spirit of a particular time in history, in terms of ideas and beliefs.

History of mental health an infographic displaying a timeline of mental health treatment strategies StudySmarterTimeline of Mental Health Treatment, StudySmarter Original

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. 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 of the early 20th century

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

Mid-20th century – Skinner’s behavioural approach

This period saw a shift toward psychology as a science. Psychologists sought to understand behaviour through observation. The behaviour therapy approach assumes behaviour is learned from experience. Behaviour is learned through:

  1. Association

  2. Reinforcement

1960–present – cognitive revolution

This era saw 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, which is comparable to a computer.

Mental illnesses arise from errors in the mental processes.

Late 1970s–present – the medical model was introduced

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

  1. Chemical imbalances

  2. Neurotransmitters dysfunction

  3. Physical trauma

  4. Brain abnormalities

History of mental health treatment

Let's go over a brief history of mental health treatment strategies. You can refer to the infographic at the beginning of this explanation as you read.

6500 BC – Spiritual entities

Mental illnesses were considered to be the result of evil spirit possessions. 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.

800–400 BC

Physicians began to theorise 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 then 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 scientificity.

As a result of this change, the first psychiatric hospital was opened in Baghdad in 792 BC. The hospital believed that patients deserved inpatient treatment rather than the barbaric treatments that had been used previously.


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 talked down to. 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’
  • Chaining patients against their will in poor conditions.

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 the early childhood trauma causes.

  • Dream analysis

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

  • 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.

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. Medication and cognitive behavioural therapy are usually used for treatment. The medical model used 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

Rosenhan (1973) investigated whether people can tell whether someone has mental problems or not. The reason for this was that the classification systems in use at the time, such as the DSM, proved to be poor diagnostic tools.

Experiment 1 procedure

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’.

Experiment 1 Results

The pseudopatients were all admitted to hospitals, where they stayed between 7 and 52 days. Seven of the participants were diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other with manic-depressive psychosis. If any of the participants became distressed by the behaviour of the staff, it was considered to be a result of their ‘illness’ and not the current situation. Staff stayed away from patients except for administrative or practical tasks, and there were cases of physical abuse. The pseudopatients all experienced powerlessness and depersonalisation.

Experiment 2 procedure

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.

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

Conclusion of both experiments

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.

Evaluation of the experiments

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. 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

  • Mental health perception has changed several times due to advances in knowledge.
  • These changes in mental health have shifted the view of mental health from blaming people to supporting them.
  • The way behaviour and mental health are understood changed with the zeitgeist that has taken hold.
  • The changes in zeitgeist have also influenced what approach is typically used to treat mental illness.
  • Rosenhan (1973) conducted research and found it was difficult for staff in psychiatric units to recognise that some patients were not suffering from mental health problems.

Frequently Asked Questions about History of Mental Health

History has noted mental health existed in ancient Greeks. However, it is difficult to identify precisely when and where mental health originated. 

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, there are no accounts of this. Mental health stigma probably began to exist as soon as people started to identify mental health problems (e.g., differentiating people from abnormal to normal). 

Over time mental health perception has changed in terms of:

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

Final History of Mental Health Quiz


What is psychiatric nosology?

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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.

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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.

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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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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. The diagnosis of mental disorders may lead to prejudice, 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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