History of Mental Illness Timeline

In a given year, 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental illness. However, many people don’t get help. As much as society’s understanding of mental illness has evolved, people continue to fear they will be treated poorly if they seek treatment. Reviewing the history of how mental illnesses have been perceived and treated can lead to a better understanding of why stigma and prejudice about mental health disorders persist.

Check out the infographic below to learn more about mental illness, including a history of treatment and 21st century challenges.

The treatment of mental health disorders has changed dramatically since the 19th century. Learn the timeline of mental illness treatment in America.


What Is Mental Illness?

Mental illness represents a medical problem, much like cancer or heart disease. It involves how we respond to stress and trauma. We demonstrate our response through our emotions, behavior, and way of thinking.

Not all mental illnesses interfere with daily lives, but 1 in 20 Americans face debilitating mental illness conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression.

Causes of Mental Illness

Causes of mental illness range from genetic and hereditary factors to drug and alcohol abuse. Severe illnesses can also contribute to the decline of our mental health, as can traumatic events and environmental stress. 

Symptoms of Mental Illness

A person who has a mental illness consistently shows symptoms such as profound sadness, anxiety, loss of interest in activities, and problems surrounding sleep. Some people demonstrate their mental illness struggles by under or overeating. Individuals sometimes express feelings of worthlessness and may even form suicidal thoughts or consider hurting themselves.

Treatments for Mental Illness

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one tool used to treat mental illness. Through CBT, patients learn to cope with stress, move past fears and insecurities, and improve relationships.

Prescribed medications such as antidepressants can help patients elevate their mood, and a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and avoids alcohol and other harmful drugs supports mental health.

A Timeline of Mental Illness Treatment in America

The movement to deal humanely with mental illness began in the 1840s. Dorothea Dix, a pioneering advocate for the mentally ill, observed that the mentally ill received the same treatment as criminals. Dix’s work to treat individuals with mental illness more humanely paved the way for creating state hospitals.

Unfortunately, by the 1880s, the hospitals became overcrowded, and the intention of humane care turned into custodial care.

By the early 1900s, legislation prohibited people with mental illness from marrying. Additionally, over 65,000 sterilizations occurred among the mentally ill early in the century. By the 1930s, doctors performed procedures such as electroconvulsive therapy and surgeries as extreme as lobotomy at alarming rates.

In the 1950s, the public began protesting hospitals in favor of community care. In the 1960s, the movement continued to steer away from institutionalization, replacing it with home care and smaller facilities. Though well-intended, the shift to more personalized care also faced challenges, including a lack of housing, qualified staff, and overall funding.

By the 1980s, the connection between mental illness and socioeconomic challenges such as homelessness was much clearer. Today, asylums no longer exist, and the states govern psychiatric hospitals. Mental health professionals continue to expand their role to treat all aspects of mental illness.

21st-Century Challenges

More advancements need to happen to encourage the mentally ill to seek help. On average, it takes 11 years for a person with symptoms to get treatment. Barriers to insurance and a shortage of mental health professionals continue to hinder access to mental health treatment. 

Impacts of Mental Illness

People who have mental health disorders often have emotions and behaviors that challenge them daily, and such disorders make them more likely to experience poverty and incarceration. Family members sometimes share the emotional and financial burdens, and other challenges associated with mental health disorders — absenteeism and lost productivity, for example — affect employers. However, early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders can help those affected lead more productive and satisfying lives.

Eliminating Mental Illness Stigma

Like any disease, mental illness needs recognition and treatment. Learning from history and gaining a better understanding of mental illness is the first step in eliminating mental illness stigma.

Interested in helping others boost their mental health? Check out some of the following resources to learn more:



American Psychiatric Association, “Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “About Mental Health”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Mental Health Conditions: Depression and Anxiety”

Lumen Learning, “Mental Health Treatment: Past and Present”

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental Health By the Numbers”

The Ohio State University Stanton Foundation, “America’s Long-Suffering Mental Health System”

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “Mental Health Myths and Facts”

WGBH Educational Foundation, American Experience, “Treatments for Mental Illness”

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