Psychiatry down the Ages - a Brief History

I am very proud to publish on my blog this article on a brief history of psychiatry throughout the ages written by Shannon Wills. It gives an interesting account of how attitudes and treatments for mental illness have evolved - not always in the straight line of progress but rather at the mercy of the societal culture prevalent at the time. The way a society treats the mentally ill speaks volumes about that society.

I leave Shannon Willis (her contact details are at the bottom of her article) to take you on this fascinating retrospective journey:

Psychiatry Down the Ages – A Brief History

Mental illness has existed since the time humankind with cognitive powers has walked this earth, but the earliest recorded history of psychotic traits was only in the 5th century BC by the Greeks and the Romans. People with such disorders were thought to have supernatural powers or possessed by the devil, and as such, were treated using barbaric and cruel methods. It was the Greek physician Hippocrates who first suggested that mental disorders were caused by physiological abnormalities in the human brain.

The first psychiatric hospitals were built in the Middle East and Persian doctors used ancient-day forms of psychotherapy to cure the mentally ill. The Persians were also pioneers in using soothing baths, drugs, music therapy and occupational therapy to treat mental disorders. They also realized that these disorders could be treated with emotions and developed a precursor to the modern-day word association test that we attribute to eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung.

In contrast, psychiatric facilities in Europe were built only in the 13th century AD and did not treat patients so much as lock them up for good so that they would not be a danger to society. It took the illness of King George III to prove to people that mental illness could be treated and cured. The York Retreat which opened in England in 1792 is now regarded as the pioneer of using the humane approach to treating mental disorders in the Western world.

In the early 19th century, Germany became a leader in psychiatry with over 20 universities that were engaged in research and studies on this subject. Even so, there was a massive increase in the number of people housed in the asylums built in Europe and the USA, and this led to people losing faith in psychiatry and its effectiveness. The asylums went back to being jails for those who were admitted, and a stigma was attached to mental illness.

The 20th century saw the reincarnation of biological psychiatry and the death of anatomical psychiatry because of the experiments and research of Emil Kraepelin who also classified mental disorders. He was instrumental in getting people to see that mental disorders were biological in nature and that they concerned the nerves and neurons in your brain, and so, neurology and neuropsychiatry were interconnected.

Around this time, Sigmund Freud also put forward the psychoanalytic theory which psychiatrists took too because it allowed patients to be treated in private practices instead of being locked up in asylums. Between 1950 and 19980, psychopharmacology got a boost with the discovery of the first neurotransmitter acetylcholine by Otto Loewi, the discovery that lithium carbonate could be used to stabilize moods and that chlorpromazine was effective in treating schizophrenia. Also, neuroimaging was developed as a tool for psychiatry and researchers discovered that genetics also played an active role in mental illness.  

Today, even with all that we know about the condition, there’s a stigma against psychiatric patients and those with mental disorders. But at least those of us who know better realize that the human brain is a complex organ, one that works effectively only when myriad neurons and their connections function as they should and when chemical balances are normal. And if we’re unlucky enough to fall victim to such an imbalance, then psychiatry is our only hope for a near-normal life. 


This article is contributed by Shannon Wills, who regularly writes on the subject of surgical technician school. She invites your questions, comments at her email address:



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Ah... never a truer word was spoken! From my own experience, I can vouch for the fact that getting to know my illness has taken me a lifetime and it is continues to be an on-going process.

Thank you for that beautiful quote.

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