An informative Blog presenting a broad array of topics and issues relating to the science of psychology.
Suitable for professionals, students, and anyone who wishes to learn more about this fascinating science.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brief History of Mental Health and Illness

There is a rich history of mental health and illness that spans over centuries of time. In fact, even the visualization of such a concept like mental illness has a long history of being present in historical art and medical images (Eisenhauer, 2008). From this history, many theories have been derived and while some have disappeared, others have evolved into our modern world of mental health diagnosis and treatment. In this essay I will discuss the evolution of ideas throughout time and discuss their contemporary relevance.

The first record of a concept of mental illness was witnessed through the Ancient Babylonians and the Paleolithic cave dwellers. Theses ancient people viewed mental illness as “magic” and that those who were affected by it were possessed by evil. This idea came to be known as demonology. The mentally ill often suffered at the hands of this assumption, being whipped or starved. Some even underwent trephination, chipping away at one’s skull to “release” the demons. Now it is viewed that those beliefs and practices were barbaric because the concept of mental illness was beyond the comprehension of the ancient people.

The Greco-Roman period saw a big change from the ancient Babylonians and Paleolithic cave dwellers. From this period came many different theories and concepts of mental illness. Some theorists were so sure that mental illness was biologically caused that it is documented that one individual used an eel as “shock therapy” on a mentally ill person. Though Aristotle believed that the physical heart caused mental illness, he still had the idea that mental illness had a biological cause. Alcamaeon asserted that difficulties with mental illness resulted from illness in the brain. This was very far from believing that demons caused mental illness; since the brain is the focal point of modern day neuropsychiatry. An asylum was even erected for the mentally ill in Greece where methods of diet, remedies, baths, exercise, fasting, prayers, rituals, and hypnotic/hallucinogenic drugs were used. This was one of the first examples of a mental institution where those with mental illnesses could go to get treatment. Asclepiades’s concepts are comparable to many modern theories of mental illness. He stressed the importance of environmental factors and differentiated among delusions, hallucinations, and illusions, as well as acute and chronic onsets. He also grouped illnesses according to patterns of symptoms, the first to ever accomplish such a thing. Still, however, there lingered the superstitious belief that mental illness was a supernatural disorder. Plato argued that mental illness resulted from possession of spirits. Hippocrates developed the theory of imbalance of fluids within the body as cause for mental illness, while Cicero believed “fire within the soul” and imbalances among intellect, appetites, and temper were to blame. Ancient Palestine still believed mental illness was supernatural. Even biblical reference refers to cleansing people of “unclean spirits.”

Though the Greco-Roman era saw much evolution concerning the idea of mental illness, the middle ages reverted back to the ancient belief that mental illness was caused by evil spirits. Perhaps this is why this period is often called the Dark Age. Many believed that demonic possession and demonic forces caused mental illness. Some went as far as believing that one who was mentally ill had a pact with a witch, a demon, the devil himself, or were themselves a witch. Priests and monks often “exorcised” the mentally ill; praying over them, dousing them with holy water, and making them drink potions. Pope Innocent VIII urged the clergy to start a very powerful crusade to eliminate “witches.” It is estimated that 200,000 people were executed in Germany and France alone. Though the Dark Ages witnessed some absurd views of the mentally ill, a Franciscan monk speculated that madness originated near fluid-filled cavities of the brain called lateral ventricles; this is the current thinking concerning the etiology of schizophrenia. Another individual stood out during this age. Dutchman Johann Weyer attacked demonology and helped counteract the barbaric treatment of the mentally ill with his skillful describing of disorders that are well known today. He also formulated the early version of the diathesis-stress model which is a theory used today!

The period of reform witnessed a number of changes regarding mental illness and how it was viewed. During this period, many opted for more humane treatment of mentally ill. Still, in some institutions, the mentally ill were treated humiliatingly, put on display for entertainment, and were condemned to live separate from society. Vincenzo Chiarugi of Italy fought for humane treatment by removing patients’ physical restraints, providing them with activities, and spread the word about making mental hospitals more comfortable. Philippe Pinel in France called for reform in treatment of the mentally ill, instructing his staff to treat patients kindly. Jean-Baptise Pussin started the idea of record-keeping. Many started to focus on moral treatment of patients. Dorethea Dix believed mentally ill should be public responsibility. Dix supported the building of state-supported hospitals and increased the number of people treated for mental illness. This period saw a great deal of evolution and reform in the arena of mental illness. Still, archaic ideas still crept through. Benjamin Rush still believed in outrageous ideas such as bloodletting and there was still very backward thinking present such as masturbation being the cause of numerous mental ailments.

From the 19th century to the present, the world saw a surge of many innovative ideas involving mental illness. Morel proposed that mental illness was hereditary while Griesinger and Mangnon oriented toward biological explanations of mental illness. Krafft-Ebing focused on the link between Syphilis and mental illness. Emil Kraeplin made the first organized attempt at classifying illness into syndromes and believed imbalanced chemical states and abnormal secretions of sex glands were the cause of mental illness. John P. Gray leaned toward the psychogenic view, thinking that mental illness was the result of a disturbed psychological state. Mesmer believed mental illness was caused by imbalance of magnetic fluid in the body and discovered hypnosis. Sigmund Freud recognized the link between psychological processes and mental illness and discovered the unconscious origin of psychological difficulties. He developed the school of thought known as psychoanalysis. His work is still taught in modern psychology courses. C.D. Hayden and G.A. Blumer attributed sociocultural factors as the cause of mental illness. New treatments have also evolved since the 19th century. The medical model was derived from the biological model of the Greeks and places an emphasis on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Psychotropic drugs were introduced to the medical community and provided precious relief for some mentally ill patients. Manfred Sakel developed insulin shock therapy. Ladislas von Meduna used convulsant drugs as a means to treat mental illness. Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini developed electroconvulsive therapy. Antonio de Egas Monis developed a form of psychosurgery called a frontal lobotomy which he won a Nobel Prize for. Causal theories are a very common topic ranging from the biochemical school to the genetic school of thought. Many behaviorists such as Watson, Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner contested that mental illness was a learned, conditioned, behavior. Sociologists such as Arnold M. Rose have stressed the importance of social factors regarding mental illness igniting a field called social psychiatry. Even actual medical tests are being used to diagnose mental illnesses such as CAT scans and EEGs.

Throughout history there has been an obvious evolution of how mental illness is viewed. From the archaic views of demonology to the advanced science of neurological imaging, the world has seen a huge change in the schools of thought pertaining to mental illness. Still, much of mental illness remains a mystery and is continually being studied. Overtime, we will see the evolution of some theories and treatments with the development of new technology and new medical discoveries. Until then, one must keep an open mind about mental illness and incorporate multiple viewpoints when studying mental illness. After all, the mind is a very complicated concept.


Eisenhauer, J. (2008). A Visual Culture of Stigma: Critically Examining Representations of Mental Illness. Art Education, 61 (5), 13-18.

Gallagher, B.J. (2002). The Sociology of Mental Illness (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Changing Behavior Through the Power of Influence

Commitment and Consistency are two things that human beings revere. If you want to change your behavior, publicly announcing the behavior can be a step to help you. This way you would be less likely to give up your goal since we all want to appear committed and consistent to others.

As humans we need social interaction with others and need to feel accepted by others (Baumeister, 2007). However, everyday people hop on social networking sites: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Friendster, etc... People are constantly available via their cell phones through multiple methods: voice calls, instant messages, e-mails, text messages, etc... Do you feel obligated to keep up with everything in everybody’s life and to reply to every single message you receive? I have heard many people even note that they use social networking sites during work hours and during class! This is wrong because it costs your employer money and it impairs your ability to really soak up the information being taught, not to mention it is very rude. Being “constantly available” can become a job itself! If you want to stop your constant availability, one method you can try is a powerful influence technique of publicly declaring your decision to not answer texts, calls, e-mails, etc… during work or school hours; or not to carry your phone with you to class; or for people to expect a late response because of your priorities. Your public declaration will obviously be tailored to your style and what behavior you wish to change.

It can be difficult to not pick up your phone or get on your computer, it almost comes automatic to some people. However, If we realize that we have publicly declared a decision of ours, we are more likely to stay consistent with it (Deutsh & Gerard, 1955).Since you publicly announced you would no longer be immediately available, you will be less apt to change your decision.

You might feel the pressure of staying consistent with what you publicly declare. According to Cialdini (2001), when we make a commitment and advertise it publicly, we want to appear consistent with our decision and will avoid changing that decision just for the sake of appearing committed to our word. Thus, this principle of influence can be used to change your own behavior that you wish to change.

Cialdini (2001) is correct about the power of social influence concerning consistency and commitment. We all want to appear consistent and committed to what we promise; especially in the eyes of the people we know. So why not use this principle to change behavior of ours that we want or need to change?


Baumeister, R. F. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice (4th ed.). Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A Study of Normative and Informational Social Influences upon Individual Judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 329-636.