The Long History of Mental Health

Mental Health has been an evolutionary topic of interest for centuries. History on mental health, dates all the way back to the 12th century, but has been around since the beginning of time. Although mental health has revolutionized and has become better understood, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that all Provinces in Canada. In the 20th century legislation has been updated a number of times and continues to be malleable in its ways.  Let’s explore the long history of mental health including some of the advocates responsible for mental healths reform.

womans mental health hospital

12th Century

Insane asylums date all the way back to the 12th century. In one specific ledgend, the king of Ireland was disappointed when his wife did not birth a son. He sent his wife and son away to live with a priest. When the queen died the king felt grief and wanted a woman just like his old wife. He thought that his daughter would be a fair replacement. When the king wanted to marry his daughter, she fled with the priest to Geel. The king found them and beheaded them both. Many “lunatics” witnessed this sinful act and became healed. The princess Dymphna because a symbol of resistance to evil and her place of murder because a spot for miraculous healing. The Saint Dymphna Guesthouse and chapel were build on this land.

Did You Know?

One of the first Mental Health Institutions opened in Mexico City, America, in 1589.

15th Century

In 15th century during the European Renaissance there were small scale insane asylums . These asylums were also called “madhouses”, and were not ran by doctors or the church. These small houses were usually indepandantly with the help of a few servents. Many people who ran these houses also owned pre-modren hospitals, which prodeuced early modles for nursing work. Although many mentally ill people were cared for by their families, some paid a fee to have their family member get send to other homes to get care. Individuals who were a danger to themselves or others were imprissonated or stayed with the old, sick, and convicted. These homes and facilities were harsh and basic. In times of socail stability, people with mental disorders had a better chance of treatment. In the 18-19 century institutions expanded.

Did You Know?

Evil spirits, sin, demonic forces, fear, contagious environments, and brain disturbances have all been explanations of mental disorders.

17th Century

Philippe Pinel in 1792 introduced enlightenment ideas towards mental health. He believed the insane were sick people who needed humane care. Pinel ordered the removal of chains, stop the abuse of drugging, and introduced more appropriate forms of treatment. He raised the standards for a hospital for men that had a poor reputation. The same standards were implemented three years later for an asylum for woman.

The York Retreat in 1796 became another influential institution with kind supervision, a quite environment and pleasant surroundings. The York Retreat offered meaningful activities, distractions and sympathetic care. Useful occupations were assigned to the mentally ill such as farming and weaving.

18th Century

Dorothea Lynde Dix was an influential advocate in the 1800’s and into the 1900’s. After discovering that facilities were not supplying heat in the dead of winter to patients She started investigated the living conditions of jails. Dorothea promoted the build of menatl hospitals in Halifax abd St. Johns and explained into Great britan and Europe.

Charles K. Clarke (1857-1924) saw issues revolving mental health care and aimed to provide better treatment and aproches. He introduced Nursing training and created the Clarke Institute.

Despite the good intentions of early reformers the major concern was the management of a large volume of people of people whom all had differentiating needs and behaviours. Some individuals caused disruptive actions and behaviours. Patient numbers continued to rise rapidly, there was overcrowding and limited resources. These factors created a rowdy, dangeous and often unbearable enviroment. They developed routines for eating, sleeping and working. Once admitted patients were cut from society.

Did You Know?

It was thought that woman has the right feminine characteristics for good patient care with high intelligence, wider sympathies, and finer personalities.

19th Century

In the 1900’s there were two opposing views on mental illness. Psychosocially orientated views which thought that mental disorders related from environmental and social factors and, biologic views which thought that mental disorders was caused by a biologic factors. Biologic views believed that treatment should include bed rest and resting strained nerves.

Another substantial individual to mental health treatment was Clifford Beers (1876-1943). An autobiography was published by Beers, about his three year experiences in three different types of hospitals. Clifford Beers was exposed to private non-profit, private profit and state institution. In all three facilities beers was beated, chocked, imprisionated and put in a streightjacket. Beers became the advocate for the refrom of phyciatric care.

Did you Know?

Henry Cotton believed that infection caused insanity so in attempt to cure he removed sites of sepsis such as teeth, tonsils, and colon.

Aldolf Meyer (1866-1950) combined the biologic and enviromental views, stating that both have a impact on mental health. He suggested the term of mental hygiene for bring improvement to peoples lives and mental health. Clifford Beers helped form a comitee for mental hygine called the Canadian National Commitee For Mental Hygine which introduced trained nursing staff. Meyer Believed mental illness was similar to any other physical illness.

Sigmund Freud, in the 19th century, explored peoples feelings and emotions. Relating past experiences in both early child development and adolescent memories helped to explain alterations in mental behaviours.

Canada’s national health strategy was first adopted through the Canada Health Act in 1984, which set out guidelines, values and principles related to mental health.

Did You Know?

In the 1940’s hydrotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy and insulin coma therapy were all treatment for mental illness.

The York Retreat mental health hospital for the insane

20th Century

In May 2013 the World Health Assembly created a comprehensive mental health action plan with four objectives. First being to strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health. Secondly to provide comprehensive interated and and responcive mental and socail services in the communtiy. Thirdy to implement stratagies for promotion and prevention in mental health. Lastly to strengthen information systems, evidence, and reasearch for mental health.

In Canada each province and territory is guided by its own form of the Mental Heath Act. This provides a frame work for the delivery of mental health service for peopel suffering from mental disorders. This governance insures everyone receives the requires care and treatment. This Act is congruent with The Charter Of Rights and Freedoms.

In conclusion, mental health has been a transformed area of discovery. Attitudes, perceptions and treatments have changed as a result of research and socioeconomic growth. Thankfully mental illness is now treated with humane efforts. Mental health will always be an area for enhancment and growth for years to come.

Call 911 for immediate help support

For mental health support in Canada click here

Call 1-800-273-8255 for suicidal help line or click here

Read more blog posts such as Engaging Budget Friendly Activities To Do With Your Partner click here


Austin, W., Boyd, M., Kunyk, D., Peternelj-Taylor, C. (2019). Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing for Canadian Practice. (4th ed., pp. 2-15) Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: