Past beliefs about mental illness


Past beliefs about mental illness

Past beliefs about mental illness


Past beliefs about mental illness were distinctly different from today insofar as causes. It was a common belief in primitive societies that people may have had mystic powers who could bring rain, sunshine, and who had other powers including curing the ill. In civilizations such as Arabs, Chinese, Hebrews, Hindus and Greeks, there was a belief that “madness” was caused by possession of demons or vengeful spirits (Osborne, 1998).

Past beliefs about mental illness

It was believed that some people could bring rain

The Egyptians recognized a type of emotional disorder in which the Greeks later termed this hysteria, and was then not believed to be caused by demonic possession, but they concluded it was instead a physical illness (Osborne, 1998). However, in general, the ancient Greeks thought that people who had gone ‘mad’ had offended the gods. As interesting or peculiar as any of these may seem to some nowadays, psychiatric problems have been long recognised, and although many myths still exist in today’s society, the treatment of mental illness has progressed significantly and much is accredited to our early theorists such as Sigmund Freud and many others as far as looking at mental health from different angles. However, before Freud, there were other practices that were performed in trying to ‘cure’ the sick.

Not all, but some people may be interested in past gods in relation to curing the sick, such as Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health or the goddess Athena. Perhaps today, there may still be some significance in such early beliefs, practices and traditions. For example, the god Aesculapius who was once-powerful as a cult had a symbol called the caduceus, which is a staff entwined with snakes which has been a long-standing emblem of the medical profession (Osborne, 1998).

Past beliefs about mental illness

Western medicine took quite a turn through a man called Hippocrates who basically said that the brain is the interpreter of consciousness. He declined to believe in supernatural possession as an explanation for ‘madness’ and using magic as its cure. He did not have the availability of useful tools such as the microscope. However, treatments back then included particular herbs, blood-letting and using laxatives, but were not terribly helpful. The field of psychiatry feels to this day, indebted to Hippocrates, as western medicine had a new direction (Osborne, 1998).

Various experiments of the brain were conducted in the 1800s. This included experiments in the Prussian-Danish war in which doctors found with experiments of soldiers with head wounds, that stimulation on one side of the brain caused the opposite side of the soldiers’ body to twitch (Osborne, 1998).

Scientists were using microscopes in the late 1800s to observe cells of the brain. By the end of the 19th century, scientists then knew that the human brain is made up of billions of neurons and that the brain itself is the seat of thought (or the foundation of thought processes) whether this be ‘deranged’ or ‘normal’. But yet, at this stage there was little advancement in understanding the biology of mental disease. Even though the microscope was invented in 1674, the germ theory of disease had not began to be accepted until the mid 1800s (Osborne, 1998).

Past beliefs about mental illness

The first antibiotic was developed in 1888, and the launch of penicillin occurred for public release in the early 1940s. However, the field of psychiatry had to wait until the late 1950s as far as any recognised ‘wonder drugs’ were concerned. It was then, the first drugs to treat schizophrenia were developed, and in the earlier part of 20th century. Sigmund Freud was igniting theories which still today have quite considerable impact for treating physicians and helpers who practice in the field of mental health. Yet, this is another topic inn itself, whereas there is currently a turn towards person-centred care planning as opposed to traditional ways of providing services (that being in a ‘top-down’ type of approach). Whether we believe or not in parts of what Frued theorised, a lot of people are very thankful that theories were developed as since Sigmund Freud’s contribution there has been major developments in psychotherapy and the field of psychiatry.

After Freud and his theories or Psychoanalytic approach, many, many other theorists have evolved and of course many are considerably different to the original Psychoanalytic approach, such as the very respected and widely used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. No doubt, the entire field of psychiatry will be an ever-evolving process. Only 35 to 40 years ago, OCD was regarded as untreatable; nothing could be done to help. As a former battler of years of severe to extreme OCD, I am just simply so fortunate that I have had the opportunity to receive highly effective treatment, so much so, that it has probably been life saving. Maybe you know somebody who is trying to come to grips with (to accept) a mental health disorder such as depression. It can be frightening among many, many other feelings, to know what to do or where to turn. Luckily today, there is plenty of help available, not to everybody of course, but if you reach out for help, do it; do it for yourself at least.

2 resources/websites highly recommended are:

Your Health in Mind

My Mental Health

Thanks for visiting Beyond My Label 🙂 Regards,



* T.T.S.R.

Osborne, I. (M.D.), 1998, Tormenting Thoughts And Secret Rituals, Pantheon Books, New York.


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