Early Views of Mental Illness, Stigma, and Treatments

Descriptions of mental illness appear in the earliest writings of ancient civilizations like the Babylonians and Egyptians. People who had bizarre thoughts or acted strangely were viewed as being possessed by evil spirits. They were often severely treated, imprisoned, or even killed. The stigma of mental illness was so strong that family members were sometimes blamed as well as the victim. Treatment, if offered, was performed by priests or shamans and consisted of "laying on of hands,” herbal medicines, or religious cleansing rituals.

Among the ancients, there were some who viewed mental illness not as a manifestation of evil but as a condition caused by the brain and interactions with others and the environment. Hippocrates urged his students to treat patients with natural means by nurturing them and their families and giving them meaningful work (Wedding & Corsini, 2014). Still, most people with mental illness were ostracized and isolated.

Mental institutions and asylums began appearing in Europe to treat people who exhibited signs of mental illness. In 17th century America, as well as in Europe, there were perceived outbreaks of "witches” who were seen as being possessed by the devil. Some were burned at the stake. Deviant behavior continued to be seen as a character weakness or evil possession.

Isn’t it interesting that, after thousands of years, people who are mentally ill are sometimes still seen as responsible for their illness? The stigma is so strong that individuals often fail to seek treatment and families feel shame if a member is diagnosed with mental illness. As a professional counselor you can not only help individuals cope with mental illness and life challenges, but you can also help families to better adjust and cope, and support the notion that mental illness can be treated and that individuals with mental illness can be productive members of our society. In fact, a hallmark of professional counselors is advocacy. We advocate for the rights and dignity of all individuals.

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