A Brief History of Mental Illness Treatment

Most people have heard the stories of the strange ways that patients with mental illnesses were treated. It was previously thought that these illnesses were not illnesses at all. Instead they were believed to be the power of demons, or simply that people’s brains were not functioning the right way (true to an extent). It was not learned until relatively recently how the dopamine and serotonin levels of the brain help to control one’s thoughts and moods.

Treatment for Mental Illnesses

As little as 50 years ago there were still insane asylums. These hospital-like settings were used to house those who couldn’t function on their own in society. Those with severe mental illnesses were subjected to some rather barbaric treatments.

Electroshock therapy was a common practice. It was believed that by jolting the brain it could be “startled” into thinking clearly. This practice was kept up for many decades because it “worked.” By shocking the brain the doctors were not helping the patient to think clearly, but rather would end up destroying the functions he or she had left. So the aggressive or schizophrenic traits were gone because the brain was dying and unable to function.

Lobotomies were a manual method of removing parts of the brain to ensure compliance. In a patient that was particularly aggressive, and unresponsive to other forms of treatment, the hospital would open up the front of the skull and sever the nerves. This left the individual with only basic motor skills and no thought processes at all.

Many hospitals employed a chaplain or a priest. This priest would regularly cast out the demons that were thought to be inside the patients. These demons were believed to be the ones behind the irrational thought processes, and it was simply a matter of removing them.

In the 1950’s scientists were beginning to understand how the brain actually works. The drug chlorpromazine, a first generation antipsychotic, was approved by the FDA. It was originally used as an anesthetic, but it had a profound effect of relaxing mentally ill patients because it blocked the dopamine receptors in the brain.

By the early 1970’s it was understood that dopamine and serotonin worked together to create normal thought patterns. Clozapine was the first atypical antipsychotic (meaning it affected both the dopamine and serotonin receptors) to hit the market. It was heavily prescribed for about 4 years, but largely pulled because it had the deadly side effect of reducing white blood cell counts.

In the 1990’s Johnson & Johnson developed their drug Risperdal. This drug was heavily prescribed to those suffering from schizophrenia because it was basically the only drug on the market that worked. It worked so well that doctors prescribed it to children (even though it wasn’t approved for that until 2007), and other off-label uses like treatment of bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more. The problem is that this drug has a serious side effect. It can cause men to grow breasts, a condition known as gynecomastia.

Scientists are still working on a treatment of mental illness that does not have any serious side effects. Despite the fact that there are 11 atypical antipsychotic drugs on the market, there are none that work perfectly.

Will science ever find a perfect cure for mental illness?