A History Of The Treatment Of Insanity

880 words - 4 pages

A History of the Treatment of Insanity

Over the course of history, insanity has been subjected to a wide variety of treatments. Attempts to cure the mentally ill or simply relieve "normal" society of the problems caused by insanity have ranged from outright cruelty to higher degrees of humanity in today's society. This paper gives a brief overview of insanity--its believed causes and subsequent treatments--from primitive times up to the nineteenth century.
There are two known traditions for diagnosis and treatment of mental illness: spiritual/religious and naturalistic/scientific. According to the spiritual/religious tradition, supernatural forces are the cause of insanity. One of the earliest examples of spiritual/religious treatment is a practice called trephining. Archeaologists have discovered skulls exhibiting this primitive form of psychiatric surgery. Trephining involved chipping holes in a victim's skull to release the evil spirits that were responsible for the person's mental illness. Other ancient peoples attributed insanity to the mischief of demons or the anger of the gods, namely the Chinese, Egyptian, and Hebrew societies.

The Greek phisician Hippocrates believed insanity to be rooted in a lack of balance within the body. More specifically, he argued that a balance of four body fluids (or the four humors) was the key to mental health. An excess or deficiency of blood, phlegm, black bile, or yellow bile could lead to psychopathology. Those trained in the Hippocratic tradition were instructed to treat the mentally ill with attempts designed to restore the balance of the bodily fluids. These treatments were called "heroic" because they were drastic and often painful. Among them were bloodletting, purging, and the use of extreme heat and cold. There were also more humane treatments--some Greeks and Romans advocated warm baths and soothing music as possible cures for insanity. However, psychiatric treatment could only be afforded byt the very wealthy, so the less fortunate had to resort to other alternatives. For these people, the care of their mentally ill was left to their relatives and friends as there were no asylums or institutions. They were kept at home so as not to cause the community any disturbance. The mentally ill person who was not severely disturbed and whose family could afford it might have a personal attendant responsible for his/her care.

During the Middle Ages, very little public attention was given to the insane. As long as they caused no social disturbance they were left to themselves. Mentally ill people who were violent or appeared dangerous were thrown into prison, chained to the walls of "lunatic asylums", or committed to almshouses for the poor, where they had to spend their lives wandering the countryside begging. In...

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