How mental health treatment changed from the Insane Asylums to today

Mental health issues have been in the news a lot lately and times have certainly changed as far as society’s understanding around these issues. 

Mental health is a person’s condition concerning their psychological and emotional well-being. According to the World Health Organization, “mental health conditions are increasing worldwide. Mainly because of demographic changes, there has been a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in the last decade (to 2017).”


Treatment for mental health has changed a lot throughout history; with the development of medical science, the way mental health is looked at and treated has changed drastically. 


Asylums were one of the first solutions for treating people who either had mental health cases or even physical health conditions. Running from about the 1817s to 1967s, asylums were labeled as a house for the “mad” or insane. 


Treatment at these facilities was broad and often inhumane, ranging from hydrotherapy to shock therapy. With hydrotherapy, patients were commonly submerged in warm or, more commonly, cold waters or roughly sprayed with freezing water. 


Shock therapy was said to cure the mad and insane by injecting high levels of insulin into patients resulting in a coma and having them wake up after a few hours. Patients would endure this treatment up to 60 times to become fully “cured.”


Electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) applies an electrical current to the brain which induces short seizures which are said to cure depression within seconds after treatment. The side effects included amnesia and an increase in suicidal thoughts or tendencies. ECT is much safer today with the increase in medical technology and is still used to treat depression and bipolar disorders if other treatments have not worked.


TW: Lobotomies were performed from the mid-1940s to the 1970s, brought to the US by Walter Freeman. Freeman performed approximately 50,000 lobotomies. Procedures consisted of the patient becoming unconscious by electroshock; Freeman then used a sharp tool, similar to an ice pick, and inserted it above the eye and through the bone cavity into the frontal lobe of the brain while moving the tool back and forth. Russia has since banned the procedure but it is legal in other nations and is still performed at a smaller scale and is safer now.


Asylums were often overcrowded; doctors would use restraints to keep patients safe, but as the facilities became overcrowded, straight jackets, waistcoats, and leather wristlets were used to keep patients under control. A more in-depth history of mental health treatment can be found here: Link.


Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly shows an in-depth first-hand report on asylums from the late 1800s. Bly committed herself to an asylum in New York to uncover and report on the conditions inside the asylum walls. You can read her story at this Link.


As medical science developed, asylums changed to psychiatric hospitals which are much safer than asylums. These facilities are a place for people who are in a crisis and may need to be monitored as they are assessed for therapy and medical treatments.


The difference between asylums and psychiatric hospitals is night and day. Asylums were often used as dumping locations for people outside the usual norms of society. Psychiatric hospitals are better described as a resource for those who may need help or are concerned for their mental or even physical well-being. 


Today, people who have similar conditions to those who were in asylums are now simply treated with medication and/or therapies. Medical science has pushed treatment towards safer alternatives.


According to the World Health Organization “Two of the most common mental health conditions, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year… Despite these figures, the global median of government health expenditure that goes to mental health is less than 2%(20 billion dollars).” 

There is still growth to allow more accessible mental health treatment.


As mental health awareness becomes more and more normal, treatments will most likely follow with accessibility. It’s important to note that mental health is normal and okay; finding help is always right around the corner now, and resources are widely available to everyone.


After a recent citizen-approved vote for mental health, Larimer County started building facilities on the west side of town. 


The new Larimer County Behavioral Health Crisis Services Facility will provide licensed, equitable, and culturally relevant care and treatment to individuals in crisis with mental health and/or substance use disorders. Services within the facility will be provided by SummitStone Health Partners, the contracted service provider,” According to the Larimer County website 


If you or someone you know may need help these are a few more local resources:

IMATTER Program Launched in Colorado