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Back To Blog > Mental Health – a History of the Past and a Lesson for the Future


This post is by Monica Velici of Sparta Health

The question of how to address mental health issues has existed since antiquity; whether you chart its history from Darwinism and the rise of evolutionary thought in mid-19th century or as far back as the Greeks who spent centuries of reflection on mental health.

Theories appeared across the years supporting supernatural, somatogenic, and later medical views on mental health. One of the earliest explanations for mental illness is trephination – the idea that if one drills a hole into a human’s skull bad or evil spirits trapped inside will be released. The Ancient Greeks rejected the idea of a supernatural possession of the mind and body, believing that mental illnesses, such as personality disorder, epilepsy, mania, and melancholia, were the result of hysteria. Hysteria was the notion that a woman’s uterus could dislodge and attach to other parts of the body like the chest cavity or liver, impairing a woman’s normal functioning and ultimately making women act “crazy” or “out of the ordinary”. 

Over time, the idea that mental health was not the result of a supernatural possession, that a woman’s uterus won’t just dislodge, and that one can identify, observe, and treat a disease, that is seemingly invisible, grew. In 1870s when England entered its industrialisation era, education became compulsory. At this time, society had high educational expectations, however, unfortunately possessed an underdeveloped understanding of mental health, and those students who did not progress as expected, were sometimes seen as a burden on the society and labelled as “feebleminded” and even “retarded”.  As such, many were even locked away in what were known as “asylums” – particularly in the USA. 

With the progress of Psychology as a discipline, new theories on Mental Health emerged. Skinner, who was influenced by Watson’s view on behaviourism, believed that behaviour could be easily observed. Skinner based his research on the fact that the study of observable behaviour is much simpler than trying to study internal mental processes. As such, Skinner emphasised that any behaviour can be conditioned, resulting in a given cognitive process and response, or in other words, those who were mentally impaired, were so as a result of a specific behaviour being conducted or conditioned. 

Wilhelm Wundt, who is regarded as the father of Psychology, did not agree with the behaviourism approach. In Wundt’s view, this approach was limited because its only focus was on observing the behaviour. Therefore, Wundt emphasised that mental experiences could be understood in terms of combinations of small discrete perceptions and sensations. Later, during a period known as the “cognitive revolution”, Neisser, a German psychologist, coined the term “cognitive psychology” in response to Watson’s behaviourism views. Neisser proposed that an individual’s cognitive processes could be measured and subsequently analysed. These theories on behaviourism and cognitivism, the new ways of observing and measuring behaviour and the mind served as the basis for today’s mental health research, practices, and treatment.  

Wundt’s work was influential on Emil Kraepelin (who at that time worked in Wundt’s laboratory of scientific research) and prompted him to publish a comprehensive guide of psychological disorders that centred around the pattern of symptoms suggestive of an underlying physiological cause. This guide is known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. Emil Kraepelin became the father of Mental Health and was the first to describe and diagnose mental health disorders. Nowadays, DSM (mostly used in the USA) along with the ICD (mostly used in UK and Europe) manuals are widely used by clinicians in diagnosing mental health disorders. 

Given that we all aware of, and may very well have experienced anxiety, depression, or low mood at some point in our lives, year-round mental health awareness is imperative. We should encourage people around us to talk about their difficulties, to share their experiences, end the stigma and aim to create non-judgmental environments where people can feel comfortable in opening up about their difficulties. As a society we should seek new and innovative ways of providing support for those in need. 

We readily apply labels to people around us, however why is this so? Perhaps fear or a lack of knowledge? Maybe mindset? Perhaps the influence of others? 

Society must move away from the stigma surrounding mental health ill health that has been around for years. However, how do we do this? One simple answer could be to listen. Listen around you, listen to people’s stories, and try to avoid stereotyping. Think about those in need and why they need you, think about how you can help someone in need.

 This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme is kindness so let’s start by being kind; to each other, to ourselves, and to those who need us. In the context of the current pandemic, kindness might be the key word. Isolation and living alone may very well have an increased impact on mental health and wellbeing, and showing some kindness and understanding to your neighbours, friends, family, even to those who you do not know, will undoubtedly make a positive impact in their life! Out of kindness get involved and support those who suffer, avoid stereotyping and let’s work together to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Most importantly, do not forget that mental health awareness should be an all a year-round consideration, not just one week per year! 

About Monica Velici

Monica joined Sparta Health in February 2020 as part of the rehabilitation service support team. She has a degree in Psychology, an MSc in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences, and a keen interest in dementia and mental health. Monica aims to become a fully accredited therapist. 

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