Mental health has become somewhat of a buzzword post-pandemic. For the younger generations, mental health has made its way into mainstream culture, helping to destigmatize conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders that require mental healthcare.
Talking about mental health is a step in the right direction. But as mental health becomes less taboo, will we do more than just talk about it? How far have we really come? And can learning from the past–and paying attention to the shift surrounding mental illness discussions– help us break the stigma entirely?
Continued after video:
A History of Mental Healthcare in America
We’ve seen a huge shift in how mental wellness is presented and accepted in modern-day culture. Let’s take a look at some of the (thankfully outdated) mental healthcare practices of yesteryear:
Isolation & Mistreatment
Although modern society would view isolating those will mental health conditions as brutal and inhumane today, the use of isolation to remove neurodivergent persons from public view was relatively common.
Under the guise of “treatment,” patients were often held in hospitals for life or hidden away in attics or cellars of family homes and subjected to ice water baths, physical battery, caging, painful physical restraints, exorcisms, and kept in solitary confinement.
The harsh treatment of the mentally ill eventually led Dorthea Dix down her road to advocacy and change, which we’ll discuss later.
Although commonly known for treating physical ailments such as cholera and smallpox, bloodletting was used in treating mentally ill patients at the behest of physician Thomas Willis. He believed that bloodletting helped to rebalance the body and, therefore, the mind.
Bloodletting as a common treatment for mental illness fell out of practice in the late 19th century, but leeches and maggots in surgical procedures are still sometimes implemented today.
Insulin coma therapy was developed by Manfred J. Sakel, who originally used insulin injections to tranquilize patients withdrawing from morphine. After inducing a coma in a patient through an unintentional overdose, Sakel noted a remarkable change in the patient’s mental state once the patient recovered.
Sakel noticed an improvement in a patient’s mental state post-coma insulin-induced comas and subsequently used his treatment for schizophrenic patients. The therapy was a common mental health treatment from the 1920s until the 1960s. An insulin-induced coma lasted between 1 and 4 hours and came with the risk of long-term coma and a mortality rate of up to 10%.
Eventually, insulin-induced coma therapy was replaced with safer alternatives.
A controversial treatment that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1949, lobotomies involved the surgical removal of the connection between the brain’s frontal lobes and the prefrontal cortex. This procedure was prescribed in more severe psychiatric cases but became popular in the mid-20th century–less than 100 years ago.
Lobotomies came with serious risks and complications and were discontinued with the introduction of psychiatric medications in the 1950s.
Metrazol Shock Therapy
The precursor to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Metrazol therapy involved inducing seizures to treat mental health conditions. This therapy was risky and ineffective, resulting in myocardial conditions and high mortality rates.
Metrazol shock therapy was discontinued in the 1940s and removed from use by the FDA in 1982, making way for the still controversial (but safer) ECT, which is still used to treat severe cases of mania and depression.
These treatments seem barbaric when compared to modern mental health treatments such as holistic treatment centers, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychiatric medications. However, it’s important to recognize that history can pave the way for modern treatments and destigmatizing mental health as a whole.
When Did American Culture First Make a Shift for the Better?
The first true shift in how society addresses mental illness can be traced back to Dorthea Dix. Dorthea Dix’s advocacy for those struggling with mental illness was arguably the stepping stone to today’s holistic treatment centers.
After touring the country and observing the treatment of those with mental illness, Dorthea Dix reported her findings to several politicians and pushed for reform and compassionate care. Although her ideas were not well received, she pushed forward. She significantly impacted the mental healthcare system, eventually opening patient-forward asylums in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.
Dorthea Dix was one of the first people to challenge the misconception that those with mental illness could not be helped or healed. Her advocacy became the springboard into seismic shifts in how society viewed the mentally ill.
Mental Health Today: How Modern Media is Changing the Conversation Surrounding Mental Healthcare
Today, mental health has taken the spotlight, largely due to modern media allowing everyone to have a platform. Let’s take a look at some of the factors influencing the conversation surrounding mental health today:
Social Media Culture
Social media culture has made mental health and wellness less taboo. Hashtag campaigns such as #MentalHealthMonth, the boom around self-care, and even memes have made mental healthcare a part of regular conversation.
In recent times, wellness in the workplace has taken a front seat. With The Great Resignation came conversations about workplace abuse, work-life balance, and other job-related stressors that can lead to (or exacerbate) already existing mental health conditions.
This conversation has helped destigmatize mental health and pressure executives to change toxic work environments, spurring workplace wellness programs and better working conditions for employees.
Celebrities Speaking Out
While celebrities have always been the focus of media attention, the birth of social media has made it so that celebrities can control the narrative themselves. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Jim Carrey, Chrissy Teigan, Ryan Reynolds, and Adele are turning conversations towards mental health and helping to normalize discussions about depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and even dual diagnoses such as substance use disorder and anxiety.
As society changes with technology, we have the opportunity to contribute to the stigmatization of mental health by removing the shrouds of secrecy and shame and making mental health discussions a normal part of the conversation.
Mental Health Tomorrow: What Will Mental Healthcare Look Like in 10 Years?
As society progresses, we believe that the understanding and normalization of mental health treatment will also. If the trend continues, we can expect to see mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder treatments become just as accepted as treatments for physical ailments.
How can this be achieved?
Knowledge is Understanding
Education is key when it comes to normalizing mental health treatment. There is still a stigma in our society that mental health is caused by “weakness.” With better education on our psychology and physiology, the general public will better understand that mental illnesses are just that–illnesses–and require treatment.
This education can come from institutions such as schools but can come from everyday people. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans has a mental health condition. If even half of those affected by mental illness educated their peers on their conditions, the ripple effect of understanding and acceptance would be astronomical.
And those who believe they are suffering from a mental health condition and are not yet diagnosed will be more likely to seek diagnosis and treatment.
Accessibility Leads to Acceptance
Making mental healthcare more accessible will directly impact the perception of mental healthcare as a whole.
When mental health clinics, dual diagnosis treatment centers, and holistic health treatments are more common in our communities, we’ll continue to normalize treatment for mental health conditions.
Over the next decade, we must focus on educating the public on mental health, addiction, dual diagnosis, and other psychological matters. In doing so, we can encourage the treatment of these conditions and create a healthier society as a whole.
Treatment is Key to Breaking the Stigma–Permanently
With education and accessibility comes normalizing treatment. Many people facing mental health challenges are affected by long-standing stigmas and resist seeking treatment. By learning from the history of mental health treatment, paying attention to the shifts in the current landscape, and focusing on education and accessibility in the future, in 10 years, mental healthcare will reach new heights, and our communities will thrive in ways they never have before.
Sources: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Manfred-J-Sakel  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness