The Treatment and Perception of Mental Illness in Past and Present

Written by Lena Kammerer.
Edited by Giulia Cottino
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Netflix’s ‘The Crown’, a tv show about the British monarchy which has been watched by over 73 million households worldwide, has certainly sparked controversy due to its often-dramatized portrayal of events. However, when looking at the fourth episode of the latest season in which Princess Alice, Prince Philip’s mother, is introduced and her life story is told, fiction might not be too far from reality. In the opening scene, the Princess discusses her experience with mental illness and mentions her former treating doctor, who was none other than Sigmund Freud. And indeed, in the 1920s, the real Princess Alice did suffer from what was then called a nervous breakdown and was subsequently sent to sanitariums in Berlin and Switzerland, where she eventually became a patient of Freud, who was convinced that her problems stemmed from sexual frustration. In order to ‘cool her down’, he proceeded to repeatedly X-ray Princess Alice’s ovaries to induce her menopause. What sounds like a rather uncommon treatment of a mental health disorder, in Princess Alice’s case presumably schizophrenia, was not even one of the most controversial or harmful methods with which mentally ill patients have been treated in the past. 

Photo by Jerome on Unsplash

In the Middle Ages, for instance, bloodletting and purging, which had its roots in ancient Greek medicine, was a common procedure to supposedly fix the imbalances of body and mind. Many medieval societies believed that a mental disorder was a punishment from God and that the sufferers were possessed by the devil. This assumption led to an often-brutal treatment of the mentally ill. In many cases, they were excluded from their community and sent to madhouses. 

Asylums, which often fully isolated people struggling with mental illnesses from the rest of society, became especially widespread in the 17th century. Many of these were extremely overcrowded and had poor hygienic conditions. Moreover, the medical staff applied physical methods like ice baths. 

In the 20th century, medication-based therapy became more and more common with methods like Insulin Coma Therapy or Metrazol Therapy being developed. However, both procedures posed significant health risks for the treated patients and even ended up deadly for some. 

Violence towards people struggling with mental illnesses reached an unfortunate peak during the Nazi reign in Germany. 

When looking back at the treatment of mental disorders in the past, discrimination and stigmatization often severely affected in what manner mentally ill people were treated.  

But present-day societies should not think themselves safe when it comes to the treatment of people with mental illnesses. Even though today’s approach with psychotherapy and bio-chemical treatment is by far an improvement to some cruel methods of the past, society still has a lot to learn when it comes to finding an adequate and appropriate way to deal with people suffering from mental health problems. Evidently, there still is structural discrimination against people with mental illnesses, in our legislation for instance. 

Nearly 9 out of 10 people who suffer from a mental illness today report that the stigma and discrimination they face when talking about their suffering negatively impacts their life and recovery and that they still experience social exclusion and prejudices. 

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

Negative stereotypes of mental illnesses often stem from and get reinforced by the depiction of them in today’s mass media. Mental illnesses are almost always presented in a negative and often inaccurate manner. Oftentimes, mentally ill patients are portrayed as violent, dangerous or criminal, having to be restrained to the bed to avoid them harming others. 

Mental health disorders have always been subject to negative judgment and discrimination, more than any other illnesses, and although treatment and understanding of mental illnesses have significantly improved over the last hundred years, there is still much work to be done within our society to appropriately interact and represent people who suffer from mental illnesses. We must actively rid ourselves of false and harmful perceptions of mental disorders from the past and the present to create a safe and supporting atmosphere for people who suffer from them. 

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