Chapter 2: Perspectives on Abnormal Behaviour

2.1 Historical Perspectives on Mental Illness

Alexis Bridley & Lee W. Daffin Jr.; Carrie Cuttler; and Jorden A. Cummings

Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe prehistoric and ancient beliefs about mental illness.
  • Describe Greco-Roman thought on mental illness.
  • Describe thoughts on mental illness during the Middle Ages.
  • Describe thoughts on mental illness during the Renaissance.
  • Describe thoughts on mental illness during the 18th and 19th centuries


As we have seen so far, what is considered abnormal behavior is often dictated by the culture/society a person lives in, and unfortunately, the past has not treated the afflicted very well. In this section, we will examine how past societies viewed and dealt with mental illness.

Prehistoric and Ancient Beliefs

Prehistoric cultures often held a supernatural view of abnormal behavior and saw it as the work of evil spirits, demons, gods, or witches who took control of the person. This form of demonic possession was believed to occur when the person engaged in behavior contrary to the religious teachings of the time. Treatment by cave dwellers included a technique called trephination, in which a stone instrument known as a trephine was used to remove part of the skull, creating an opening. They believed that evil spirits could escape through the hole in the skull, thereby ending the person’s mental affliction and returning them to normal behavior. Early Greek,  Hebrew, Egyptian, and Chinese cultures used a treatment method called exorcism in which evil spirits were cast out through prayer, magic, flogging, starvation, noise-making, or having the person ingest horrible tasting drinks.

Greco-Roman Thought

Rejecting the idea of demonic possession, Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), said that mental disorders were akin to physical disorders and had natural causes. Specifically, he suggested that they arose from brain pathology, or head trauma/brain dysfunction or disease, and were also affected by heredity. Hippocrates classified mental disorders into three main categories – melancholia, mania, and phrenitis (brain fever) and gave detailed clinical descriptions of each. He also described four main fluids or humors that directed normal functioning and personality – blood which arose in the heart, black bile arising in the spleen, yellow bile or choler from the liver, and phlegm from the brain. Mental disorders occurred when the humors were in a state of imbalance such as an excess of yellow bile causing frenzy/mania and too much black bile causing melancholia/depression. Hippocrates believed mental illnesses could be treated as any other disorder and focused on the underlying pathology.

Also important was Greek philosopher, Plato (429-347 B.C.), who said that the mentally ill were not responsible for their own actions and so should not be punished. He emphasized the role of social environment and early learning in the development of mental disorders and believed it was the responsibility of the community and their families to care for them in a humane manner using rational discussions. Greek physician, Galen (A.D. 129-199) said mental disorders had either physical or mental causes that included fear, shock, alcoholism, head injuries, adolescence, and changes in menstruation.

In Rome, physician Asclepiades (124-40 BC) and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) rejected Hippocrates’ idea of the four humors and instead stated that melancholy arises from grief, fear, and rage; not excess black bile. Roman physicians treated mental disorders with massage and warm baths, with the hope that their patients be as comfortable as possible. They practiced the concept of “contrariis contrarius”, meaning opposite by opposite, and introduced contrasting stimuli to bring about balance in the physical and mental domains. An example would be consuming a cold drink while in a warm bath.

The Middle Ages – 500 AD to 1500 AD

The progress made during the time of the Greeks and Romans was quickly reversed during the Middle Ages with the increase in power of the Church and the fall of the Roman Empire. Mental illness was yet again explained as possession by the Devil and methods such as exorcism, flogging, prayer, the touching of relics, chanting, visiting holy sites, and holy water were used to rid the person of the Devil’s influence. In extreme cases, the afflicted were confined, beat, and even executed. Scientific and medical explanations, such as those proposed by Hippocrates, were discarded at this time.

Group hysteria, or mass madness, was also seen in which large numbers of people displayed similar symptoms and false beliefs. This included the belief that one was possessed by wolves or other animals and imitated their behavior, called lycanthropy, and a mania in which large numbers of people had an uncontrollable desire to dance and jump, called tarantism. The latter was believed to have been caused by the bite of the wolf spider, now called the tarantula, and spread quickly from Italy to Germany and other parts of Europe where it was called Saint Vitus’s dance.

Perhaps the return to supernatural explanations during the Middle Ages makes sense given events of the time. The Black Death or Bubonic Plague had killed up to a third, and according to other estimates almost half, of the population. Famine, war, social oppression, and pestilence were also factors. Death was ever present which led to an epidemic of depression and fear. Nevertheless, near the end of the Middle Ages, mystical explanations for mental illness began to lose favor and government officials regained some of their lost power over nonreligious activities. Science and medicine were once again called upon to explain mental disorders.

The Renaissance – 14th to 16th Centuries

The most noteworthy development in the realm of philosophy during the Renaissance was the rise of humanism, or the worldview that emphasizes human welfare and the uniqueness of the individual. This helped continue the decline of supernatural views of mental illness. In the mid to late 1500s, Johann Weyer (1515-1588), a German physician, published his book, On the Deceits of the Demons, that rebutted the Church’s witch-hunting handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum, and argued that many accused of being witches and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, hung, and/or burned at the stake, were mentally disturbed and not possessed by demons or the Devil himself. He believed that like the body, the mind was susceptible to illness. Not surprisingly, the book was met with vehement protest and even banned from the church. It should be noted that these types of acts occurred not only in Europe but also in the United States. The most famous example was the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in which more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were killed.

The number of asylums, or places of refuge for the mentally ill where they could receive care, began to rise during the 16th century as the government realized there were far too many people afflicted with mental illness to be left in private homes. Hospitals and monasteries were converted into asylums. Though the intent was benign in the beginning, as they began to overflow patients came to be treated more like animals than people. In 1547, the Bethlem Hospital opened in London with the sole purpose of confining those with mental disorders. Patients were chained up, placed on public display, and often heard crying out in pain. The asylum became a tourist attraction, with sightseers paying a penny to view the more violent patients, and soon was called “Bedlam” by local people; a term that today means “a state of uproar and confusion” (

Reform Movement – 18th to 19th Centuries

The rise of the moral treatment movement occurred in Europe in the late 18th century and then in the United States in the early 19th century. Its earliest proponent was Phillipe Pinel (1745-1826) who was assigned as the superintendent of la Bicetre, a hospital for mentally ill men in Paris. He emphasized the importance of affording the mentally ill respect, moral guidance, and humane treatment, all while considering their individual, social, and occupational needs. Arguing that the mentally ill were sick people, Pinel ordered that chains be removed, outside exercise be allowed, sunny and well-ventilated rooms replace dungeons, and patients be extended kindness and support. This approach led to considerable improvement for many of the patients, so much so, that several were released.

Following Pinel’s lead in England, William Tuke (1732-1822), a Quaker tea merchant, established a pleasant rural estate called the York Retreat. The Quakers believed that all people should be accepted for who they were and treated kindly. At the retreat, patients could work, rest, talk out their problems, and pray (Raad & Makari, 2010). The work of Tuke and others led to the passage of the County Asylums Act of 1845 which required that every county in England and Wales provide asylum to the mentally ill. This was even extended to English colonies such as Canada, India, Australia, and the West Indies as word of the maltreatment of patients at a facility in Kingston, Jamaica spread, leading to an audit of colonial facilities and their policies.

Reform in the United States started with the figure largely considered to be the father of American psychiatry, Benjamin Rush (1745-1813). Rush advocated for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, showing them respect, and even giving them small gifts from time to time.  Despite this, his practice included treatments such as bloodletting and purgatives, the invention of the “tranquilizing chair,” and a reliance on astrology, showing that even he could not escape from the beliefs of the time.

Due to the rise of the moral treatment movement in both Europe and the United States, asylums became habitable places where those afflicted with mental illness could recover. However, it is often said that the moral treatment movement was a victim of its own success. The number of mental hospitals greatly increased leading to staffing shortages and a lack of funds to support them. Though treating patients humanely was a noble endeavor, it did not work for some and other treatments were needed, though they had not been developed yet. It was also recognized that the approach worked best when the facility had 200 or fewer patients. However, waves of immigrants arriving in the U.S. after the Civil War were overwhelming the facilities, with patient counts soaring to 1,000 or more. Prejudice against the new arrivals led to discriminatory practices in which immigrants were not afforded moral treatments provided to native citizens, even when the resources were available to treat them.

Another leader in the moral treatment movement was Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), a New Englander who observed the deplorable conditions suffered by the mentally ill while teaching Sunday school to female prisoners. She instigated the mental hygiene movement, which focused on the physical well-being of patients. Over the span of 40 years, from 1841 to 1881, she motivated people and state legislators to do something about this injustice and raised millions of dollars to build over 30 more appropriate mental hospitals and improve others. Her efforts even extended beyond the U.S. to Canada and Scotland.

Finally, in 1908 Clifford Beers (1876-1943) published his book, A Mind that Found Itself, in which he described his personal struggle with bipolar disorder and the “cruel and inhumane treatment people with mental illnesses received. He witnessed and experienced horrific abuse at the hands of his caretakers. At one point during his institutionalization, he was placed in a straightjacket for 21 consecutive nights.” ( His story aroused sympathy in the public and led him to found the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, known today as Mental Health America, which provides education about mental illness and the need to treat these people with dignity. Today, MHA has over 200 affiliates in 41 states and employs 6,500 affiliate staff and over 10,000 volunteers.

For more information on MHA, please visit:


Bridley, A., & Daffin, L. W. Jr. (2018). Historical Perspectives on Mental Illness. In C. Cuttler (Ed), Essentials of Abnormal Psychology. Washington State University. Retrieved from

Raad, R., & Makari, G. (2010). Samuel Tuke’s description of the retreat. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(8), 898.


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Abnormal Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Alexis Bridley & Lee W. Daffin Jr.; Carrie Cuttler; and Jorden A. Cummings is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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