Mental Health: How It Started & Where We Are Today

Our approach to mental health has changed throughout time…

Mental illnesses were present long before we had names to give them.

For example, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder have already gone through many monikers: hysteria, shell shock, psychosis, and demonic possession (just to name a few).

Many ancient cultures (Egyptian, Indian, Greecian, and Roman) have viewed mental illnesses as religious punishment, personal problems, or demonic possessions.

Since the 5th century B.C, Hippocrates was a pioneer in treating the mentally ill with techniques not related to religion. He, instead, changed mentally ill patient’s environments and introduced substances as treatments.

But unfortunately, negative attitudes towards people with mental health issues persisted into the 18th century in the United States.

And when the 20th century came, society finally understood the reality of mental illness as a true medical illness and, for the first time, healthcare providers began to treat these disorders. 

Yet, society’s perceptions of mental health still have a long way to go…

Mental health services have not always benefited the people struggling with mental health disorders.

In this article we’ll go through the timeline of mental illness treatment to highlight key moments in history that have led us to where we are today.

The First Forms of Mental Health Treatment

Pre-18th Century:

In the 16th century, mental health disorders were split into two main categories: demonic possession and physical illness. 

When a physical abnormality was presented in a patient with mental illness, treatments focused on fixing the physical symptoms.

For example, if someone had a mental illness with a stomach ache, doctors encouraged the use of  herbal supplements, medications, and lifestyle changes. 

Doctors also performed intense surgeries on patients with mental health disorders.

But for non-surgical treatments, they worked at a socioeconomic level to shut out mentally ill people from society.

People with mental illnesses often ended up in jail, and rarely received proper treatment.

There was also the implementation of mental hospitals (which still exist today) to provide moral treatment to help people with mental illnesses.

But before the 18th century, these hospitals were environments of isolation.

Emerging Treatments in the 19th and 20th Centuries:

In the early 1900s  psychiatric hospitals were known as “insane asylums,” and they were used as punishment for people with mental illnesses.

In addition to isolation, the 19th and 20th century had new forms of addressing mental health issues, such as:

  • Freudian therapeutic techniques, such as the “talking cure”
  • Electroshock, a.k.a electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
  • Antipsychotic drugs and other medications
  • Lobotomy and other forms of psychosurgery

These treatments were a new way to fix society’s perception of those suffering from mental health disorders rather than helping them. 


When the moral method reached the United States, doctors used it as an innovative way of treating mentally ill people by working on their:

  • Social needs.
  • Individual needs.
  • Occupational needs.

 Doctors encouraged patients to participate in manual labor and conversation and trained them to be healthy and contributing members of society.

Although moral treatment was effective, it died out in the late years of the 19th century.

Critics said that this method did not treat patients but made them dependent on their doctors.

What Does Mental Health Look Like Today?

Treatment for mental illness has developed a lot throughout history.

Our modern look at mental illness has improved tremendously because of many mental health awareness movements, studies, and innovations.

According to Webmd, today, treatments handle mental illness more knowledgeably, effectively, and morally.

We started having many treatments that are more effective and less harmful.

There are hundreds of psychoactive drugs that are targeting mental health disorders and giving patients a great degree of comfort and privacy with how their conditions are treated.

These drugs are:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Selective serotonin & norepinephrine inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • Novel serotonergic drugs
  • Drugs that affect dopamine and norepinephrine 
  • Tetracyclic antidepressants that are specific serotonergic antidepressants (NaSSAs)
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

And, in the last 10 years, technology has transformed the way we treat mental illnesses even more!

Some of the latest innovations are:

  • Rapid Acting Antidepressants, like Ketamine, triggers the rapid growth of neurological connections in the brain, which can lift symptoms of depression and suicidality (sometimes within hours of treatment).
  • AI motion sensors can be used to detect symptoms of anxiety.
  • IV therapy, which is an intravenous drip, is the fastest way to deliver essential nutrients and/or medications to the bloodstream and relieve mental health symptoms.

The evolution, advancements, and innovations  suggest that the improvements of today are better than anything that has come before and we have much to look forward to with the future of mental health treatments.


Hippocrates established the first intellectual school devoted to teaching the practice of medicine. 

(LiveScience: Who Was Hippocrates?, 2018, View reference).

Mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness.

(National Institute of Mental Health: Mental Illness, 2022, View reference).

Western European belief in demonic possession as a cause of mental disorder has been traced through the medieval and early modern periods.

(PubMed:Demonic possessions and mental illness: discussion of selected cases in late medieval hagiographical literature, 2014, View reference).

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) uses an electric current to create a generalized cerebral seizure.

(National Library of Medicine: Electroconvulsive Therapy, 2022, View reference).

A lobotomy, also called a leucotomy, is a type of psychosurgery that was used to treat mental health conditions.

(Healthline: Lobotomy Overview, 2022, View reference).

Moral treatment is a therapeutic approach that emphasized character and spiritual development.

(National Library of Medicine: Moral treatment in asylums and general hospitals in 19th-century America, 1989, View reference).

There are several different types of drugs available to treat mental illnesses, antidepressants, antianxiety, etc….(Webmd: Drugs to Treat Mental Illness, 2021, View reference).

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