Mental Health: Then and Now

By · October 23, 2009 · Filed in Information

The treatment options for those suffering from mental illness have evolved significantly over time.  Those struggling with various disorders now have several non-invasive and humane choices available to them for managing troubling symptoms.  But sadly, this has not always been the case. Not so long ago, the stigma associated with mental illness, coupled with the barbaric ways in which many were treated, could be fairly classified as criminal.

In the 19th century, one of the most widely used treatments for mental illness involved a process called “blood letting.”  Doctors believed patients could be cured by relieving their “poisoned blood,” and by altering blood pressure rates which were contributing to their condition.

Many believe the famous Salem Witch Trials were actually a movement targeting the mentally ill.  Ill people were labeled demons and animals, and were regularly executed and excluded.  For years to come the mentally ill would be chained, placed in straightjackets  and warehoused in asylums which had the sole purpose of removing them from society altogether.  Once there, they became guinea pigs for a wide range of deplorable, experimental treatments.

Things did not get much better with the dawning of the 20th century.  At the time, “hydrotherapy” was the preferred treatment by psychiatrists working in these so-called hospitals.  Patients were subjected to both icy and hot water submersion, externally and internally, as doctors believed they could alter brain activity by changing the patient’s body temperature.  Some of the other treatments in this era were not much better.  Here are a few that were employed.

· Henry Cotton of Trentwood State Hospital thought bacteria from tooth rot contributed to insanity and began pulling the teeth of his patients.  Almost half of them died as a result.

· Jacob Klaesi began inducing a deep sleep in his patients by combining barbiturates with their other medications, hoping to alter brain patterns at a subconscious level.

· Two Harvard doctors, Jonathan Talbot and Kenneth Tillotson thought it would be therapeutic to bind patients in icy cold blankets and drop their body temperatures by as much as 15 degrees.

· The Viennese doctor Manfred Sakel introduced a process called insulin-induced coma, also thought to be therapeutic.

Towards the middle of the 20th century, as the population grew, so did the number of people identified as mentally ill or unstable.  To be mentally ill meant to carry an unfathomable stigma and be subjected to a slew of harmful stereotypes.  It was also during this era that the two most notorious forms of mental health treatments—treatments we have all come to know too well—were introduced.

Electroshock therapy was widely accepted as the most effective treatment for the mentally ill.  Later discredited, this therapy was applied to thousands of patients.  Doctors believed that seizures and mental illness were opposite entities, and that by inducing seizures in patients with the use of electric shock, they could somehow reverse the effects of the illness.

Lobotomy also surfaced around this time.  Introduced by Portuguese doctor Egas Moniz, a lobotomy is a procedure in which a patient’s frontal lobes are surgically altered, usually with some type of drill.  Moniz believed that mental illness was a product of static patterns and that “to cure these patients we must destroy the more or less fixed arrangements of cellular connections that exist in their brain.”  Moniz won the Nobel Prize based on his work.

Thankfully treatment for the mentally ill has come a long way, and while a stigma still remains to some degree, more people are beginning to seek the proper attention for what ails them.  There are some experts, though, that believe we still have a long way to go.  While doctors have certainly come far from the days of submersion and bloodletting, the treatments currently being offered may still have room for improvement.

Medication therapy is the primary strategy employed by the majority of doctors today.  In fact, antidepressants have replaced all other categories of drugs as the most prescribed drugs in North America.  Initially, drugs called dopamine blockers, which included Thorazine, were the medications most often prescribed.  They succeeded only in placing patients in “vegetable-like” states, making them difficult to treat.  Currently, a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, have taken over the lead.  The drugs Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are included in this category, and according to some experts, their usage has reached epidemic proportions.

The SSRIs have helped many people deal effectively with their symptoms, but the drugs do nothing to address the actual causes of depression.  As a result, millions of people are becoming dependent on drugs that they may never be free of.  To make matters more complicated, the usage of SSRIs has been known to cause many troubling side effects.  Insomnia, digestive problems, tremors and sexual difficulties are regularly endured.  Many believe these medications are responsible for a host of dangerous conditions, and are creating more problems than they are addressing.

In the wake of these record prescriptions, some mental health professionals are beginning to employ some alternate techniques.  Talk therapy, cognitive therapy and behavior modification strategies are often combined with medications to try and unearth the root of the illness.  Some wonderful reports are beginning to come in, boasting the effectiveness of these treatments, and it has prompted doctors to employ a more comprehensive approach for these conditions.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a strategy involving a combination of eastern meditation techniques and cognitive therapy.  Patients are taught to meditate and are instructed just to “accept what is,” and “live in the moment.”  The theory behind MBCT is that meditation, coupled with cognitive therapy will help people recognize and interrupt harmful patterns, such as dreading the past and anxiously awaiting the future, and replace them with “right now” thinking and a feeling of peace and empowerment.

Other techniques such as Subconscious Restructuring and Magnetic Stimulation therapy are quickly gaining popularity in the medical community.  The former seeks to treat the causes of depression, and other disorders, at the subconscious level.  It helps patients become aware of harmful stimuli, and provides them with techniques to identify these triggers and actively alter or eliminate them.  Magnetic Stimulation is a technique in which charged or static magnets are applied to an affected area, in this case the brain, to alter its activity.

Collectively, all of these alternate therapies represent a positive shift in the arena of mental health.  As the stigma, inherent in mental illness, gradually begins to ebb, doctors are embracing the challenge of tackling mental health at its root.  Times have changed, but its important to remember that mental illness is still avery serious dilemma—a dilemma without a cure.  With continued research and a complete commitment to finding a cure, a commitment which is embraced both medically and sociologically, the options available to those suffering will continue to evolve, offering a ray of hope for treating this global plague.


How can one get better from depression with a pill? It cannot take the reason you are depressed and make it better? I am amazed how the mental health professionals believed filling me with pills and side effects and shock treatments would relieve my lack of courage, my laziness and my poor abilities to compete and hopelessness. Life hurts and I’m mad. I am more depressed 25 yrs later and just as hopeless. When I finally admitted I needed help and went for it all I got was pills and guilt for being negative.

My name is Jean Knight & I’m just trying to get my son some help. he was found to have a mental illness at the age of 18…alot was going on with the family at that time. So ten yrs. later things haven’t gotten any better, looking for a life coach because my son doesn’t listen to me & just resents me. I’m about to put him in his own place & just get a life coach, hoping that he will just listen to them. Praying he will see himself one day & just wanna do better. I just know I need help…and it hurts to see him like this everyday..I feel at times that its my fault …but there’s nothing I can do to make it better…he has so much court cost from hanging on corners, beggin for cigarettes, thats not him..but thats who he chose to be. I cant stop him, he is 29 now & his life is nothing to him…Need Help

I appreciate your desire to help your son Jean. I will e-mail you privately and we can go from there.

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