To celebrate World Mental Health Day, Emma and I are posting a two-part blog post; Part One discussing the past of mental health, and Part Two looking into the present and future. We want to highlight how far mental health awareness has come, whilst also recognising how we can still change the perception of mental illness.
If you look into the history of mental health you will soon realise that we have come far in accepting mental illnesses in the past few hundred years, but that is definitely something we can still improve upon. It is commonly acknowledged that an awareness of the mental state dates back to roughly 5000 BC (give or take a thousand years). Man first believed that mental illness was caused by a ‘supernatural phenomena’ that manifested itself in a person, meaning that they contained an evil spirit inside of them. This lead to countless misunderstood, brutal treatments (see: trephining, if you are not queasy person), designed to help the contaminated person be free of their lodging spirit. Later, rituals and exorcisms became the norm in some countries to aid the release of the inner demons, whilst some believed that it was a pain inflicted by God as a punishment. From early on, mental illness was incredibly misunderstood for a very long time.
The Egyptians, however, had more forward-thinking ideas. Although they too thought that it was the source of a supernatural phenomena, the way that they treated mental illness was vastly different. They utilised the arts as a form of therapy with music and dance becoming a central part of treatment. They also understood the workings of the brain much better than their previous ancestors. Hippocrates later argued that supernatural forces were not to blame and instead put forth the idea of the four essential fluids of the human body - blood, phlegm, bile and black bile - an imbalance of which would cause an unstable mind. The first mental asylums brought with them shame on the afflicted person and it became a cultural norm for the mentally ill to be shut off from their family and in many instances even locked away.
We are now a much more forward-thinking society, but there is still a long way to go before mental illness is fully accepted and, most importantly, understood. There are now far more methods of treatment available than there were before, and there is a greater body of research on mental health in general with tens of thousands of scientists devoting their lifetime to developing a broader knowledge of mental illness. This doesn’t, however, change the fact that many doctors still rely on pharmaceutical treatments before anything else, and in some cultures outdated forms of therapy are still used and believed to be the only way to help treat people. Remarkably, some still believe in the supernatural phenomena of the evil spirit 2,500 years later!
Nevertheless, as a society will still have a long way to go before mental health can be treated properly and understood in all parts of the world. A major part of this development relies on the openness of discussion when talking about mental health both in person and online. Until people are open about their problems and are willing to share and help others, it will be difficult to break down that barrier around mental illness. We need to support one another and make sure that we take the time to understand each other's issues, whilst also not taking support for granted.
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