A History of the Treatment of Insanity

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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, an...

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...can Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII) was founded in 1844. It later became the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Its purpose is to designate the criteria to diagnose a patient as mentally ill (the current list of criteria is called the DSM-IV) and commit the person to an institution or design a course of treatment suited to the problem.


1. Bankart, C. Peter. Talking Cures: A History of Western and Eastern Psychotherapies. Albany: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1997.

2. Emery, Robert E., and Oltmanns, Thomas F. Abnormal Psychology. New Jersey: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

3. Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

4. Rosen,. George. Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.
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