Mental illness has not always been as widely accepted as it is today. It took some time for psychological and humane treatments to settle into the minds of those who were considered normal. Today there is hardly as much of a stigma attached to mental disorders as there used to be. Animism was a belief that everyone had a soul, which many people believed in pre-modern times. Explanations to those with mental disorders were attributed to evil spirits that would enter a person for a number of reasons and possess the body and soul. To get rid of these unwanted “inhabitants”, spiritual practices and magic rituals were used to expel the spirits. It was normal to ask a witch for spells and potions to cure their illnesses or other problems. But when witchcraft was no longer tolerable to the public, suspected witches were beginning to be put on trial in the middle ages, and many were found guilty of witchcraft and executed for it.
Along with animism, people also attributed mental illness to physical causes, not just spiritual ones. Hysteria was a common illness that seemed to occur mostly in widowed or single women. There were many symptoms, some including body pains, paralysis, headaches and blindness. The Greeks thought this disorder came about because of a wandering uterus. Eventually it became accepted that hysteria would occur after long periods of sexual abstinence in both males and females, when it was discovered that the uterus itself was not a living creature.
It was also a common belief at one point that those who were mad were similar to animals. They could not control their behavior, and they didn’t act like regular people or respond to normal stimuli. This belief was called animalism, and until further research and scientific progress had been made, madness was treated with methods that were used for physical illnesses, such as bleeding, purging, and induced vomiting. It was first discovered by Galen, a physician, that insanity had psychological causes; not physical ones, but his ideas were forgotten until the mid-eighteenth century.
Hospitals were created to house undesired citizens beginning in France. Hospitals like this segregated the insane from the others in their care, and the conditions were highly unfavorable. Physical abuse and excessive bleeding, purging and vomiting were normal occurrences, and they were often chained to the walls. The treatment they received mirrored the popular belief that insanity was caused by animalism, and that the insane were therefore less than human and lacked enough reason to be treated normally. The main concern was to restore reason, and it was thought best to do so by keeping them fearful.
People began to protest the inhumane treatment that these hospitals gave to the insane. Eventually hospitals began providing their insane patients with psychological care instead of physical abuse. They were unshackled and were allowed to roam freely. Many places in Europe began to treat their insane patients with kindness and gave them fewer restrictions, though there were some hospitals that had been doing so before the protests started. Moral treatment spread to the United States, and it became the treatment of choice for insane patients.
Psychology has come a long way since those times, and today there are many different kinds of effective treatments for different kinds of disorders. Receiving psychological treatment does not automatically deem one insane, treatment should be thought of as a way of helping through problems, not making ones problems any more apparent.