Emergence of Psychology and Psychiatry

Mention the history of psychology and most people think of Sigmund Freud. In addition to Freud, there were other interesting characters who helped shape Western psychology and psychiatry. Take the case of Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), who attempted to bridge the religious and supernatural with scientific theories of the nature and treatment of mental illness. He believed "animal magnetism” was a force connecting humans, earth, and the universe, and that imbalances caused mental disturbances. He traveled Europe "curing” individuals by "magnetizing” them, a form of hypnosis. His success led to fame but threatened the religious and government establishments. So a board of inquiry was formed in Paris to put his treatment to a scientific test. Members of the board of inquiry included Joseph Guillotine (who would later invent a means of execution) and Benjamin Franklin. Mesmer was unable to prove his animal magnetism, and he quickly lost credibility, but his fame lives on today when we speak of being "mesmerized.” He did manage to demonstrate that some people could improve through suggestion if they were in a state of relaxation and had faith that they could be cured (Bankart, 1997).

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) began his medical career searching for the testes of eels and studying the effects of cocaine before specializing in neuropathology. He was aware of the historical accounts of Mesmer and his successor, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), who established a hospital in Paris that was regarded as a model for the treatment of mental disorders. Charcot treated "hysteric” patients through hypnotic suggestions. He recognized that some patients suffered conditions that we would diagnose today as posttraumatic stress disorder and treated them with dream interpretations and guided imagery. Freud traveled to Paris, studied with Charcot, and became convinced that this was a more humane treatment for people with mental illness. However, Freud soon discovered that he was not good at hypnosis, so he settled for relaxing his patients and allowing them to talk freely (free association). To his delight, some patients improved, and he began touting his "talking cure.” Perhaps as a reflection of the Victorian age, he believed that many mental disorders were caused by repressed sexual desires.

Freud became quite famous and had many followers. Today he is acknowledged as the father of psychiatry. His concepts of repression and the unconscious are still used in psychology today. One of his colleagues, Alfred Adler (1870-1937), broke away from Freud when he suspected that sexual repression was not the main cause of mental disorders. Adler worked in poor neighborhoods with disenfranchised people that society looked down upon, such as circus performers and Roma (gypsies). He found that even these people were able to live happy, well-adjusted lives if they felt a sense of belonging and were able to contribute in their community. He theorized that when people become isolated from society, lack meaningful work, and are ostracized, that can lead to mental disorders and in some cases even dangerous, violent behavior. These theories speak to us today in cases of bullying and mass shootings. Adler stressed the need for meaningful relationships and recognition for contributions (Bankart, 1997). His ideas of "social belongingness” and encouragement are still relevant for counselors today.

Adler and Freud brought their ideas to America and helped establish psychology and psychiatry. William James (1842-1910) believed that mental health and illness were due, in part, to free will. He stressed moral strengthening and moral willpower. John Watson (1878-1958) became the "father of American behaviorism.” He famously boasted, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” (Bankart, 1997, p. 226). He and his successor B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) believed that free will was an illusion and that people are conditioned to act one way or another, and therefore their behaviors and even their emotions can be conditioned through behavioral treatments. Today, counselors understand and use the power of behavioral conditioning, when appropriate, to help people decrease inappropriate behaviors and learn more productive ways of acting and thinking. Modern cognitive behavioral therapies are among the most widely used techniques by professional counselors.

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