Mental health is a topic that has gained prominence in recent times, where a societal shift in perspective led to the issue being widely accepted by the public. Although, medicine and surgery are one of the most respected lines of work in the world, professionals that treat our minds, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, have fared significantly less well than their counterparts.
Before the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud developed the idea of psychoanalysis (1890’s) and thus created a foundation for the field of psychology – taking a more scientific approach towards the mind – humanity was almost completely oblivious to the existence of mental illnesses and their variety. Even after Freud, however, it took the world a long time before it started treating mental health seriously.
The first significant wave of mental health awareness came after World War ll, when the traumatic effects of the war manifested in surviving soldiers who were unable to assimilate back to their civilian lives. Illnesses such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) were hard to ignore and gave people the shock necessary to begin treating the problem more seriously.
This is why when Dr. Richter, a neurochemist, voiced his concerns about the treatment of mental health in 1949, saying, “I am getting tired of this perpetual fight to get small sums for research when our colleagues working on cancer and TB are almost embarrassed by the money being thrust at them,” he was able to establish the Mental Health Research Fund (MHRF).
Within 30 years the MHRF was able to increase the number of psychiatry professorships in the UK from only 2 in 1949 to 49 in 1980, showing that mental health was increasingly more recognized in academic circles and thus gaining prominence in society.
Moreover, “deinstitutionalization” was also a result of the post-war shock. Deinstitutionalization was the process of actively closing insane asylums and shifting inpatients to more “community based settings”. This was an important step for mental health awareness as it meant that the government was actively involved in battling the issue, and giving patients the adequate services they needed. As a result of this process, a complete removal of such institutions in the UK was achieved, which also inspired other countries to follow suit.
In 1980, the MHRF gladly acknowledged the significant progress made: “Forty years ago, mental illness was synonymous with madness…and people referred to sufferers as lunatics, idiots and defectives. The last decade has seen the growth of public awareness, it is no longer acceptable or indeed possible to consign the mentally ill for long periods in isolation in institutions.”
Nevertheless, despite the indisputable improvement in the awareness and treatment of the issue after the shock of the war, the actual difference made today is being put into question. “There is very limited evidence of health and wellbeing boards making a difference locally when it comes to mental health,” said Stephen Dalton, chief executive of National Health Service (NHS) Confederation’s Mental Health Network.
This statement is supported by a study conducted by Jean Twenge in 2018, which found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues, as compared to youths of the same age who studied during the Great Depression.
Mental health is still very much pervasive in the current world we live in. Recent studies found that around 20 percent of teenagers go through depression before the age of 18. According to the 2010 Census, that would amount to over 14.5 million teenagers experiencing depression each year. However, what is most terrifying is that only 30 percent of these young people actually get the help required for them to be able to overcome the mental illness. This means that despite society’s active involvement in mental health over the last 70 years, less than a third of the children affected receive support.
However, this should only motivate further increase of funding for mental health research and facilities, rather than inspire a loss of hope. Which is exactly what is being done in the UK now, with Theresa May’s promise of a £20 billion injection into the NHS by 2023.
Despite the grim situation that mental health still finds itself in, we are comforted by the enormous progress humanity has achieved. Just two centuries ago, any discussion of mental health was taboo and shunned upon, but now governments and world leaders are proudly finding solutions to the issue. There is much more to be done, but if anything is to be learnt from history, it is that there is more than enough evidence to have faith in humanity to treat mental health with humanity.
Written by Alexandra Keller
- Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Mental Health Foundation
- The King’s Fund
- The Guardian
- Psych Central
- Texas Public