A History of Modern Psychiatry

By: Jren Dennel


Psychiatry has existed since very early times in human civilization. As far as 4-5th Century BCE, mental disorders were identified as something that would and could not be cured by the simple medical procedures used for physical ailments. Over time, psychiatry developed into a branch of medicine completely dedicated to mental health. Psychiatry, as we know it today, has evolved significantly from that which was practised by the early professionals.

The rise of early modern psychiatry can be traced back to the mid -17th century, in the France of King Louis the XIV. Though adequate treatment was not available at that time, the significance of placing patients with mental disorders into separate wings in a hospital was not lost on the medical community. However, it took another three decades before the common man accepted the fact that mental disorders could be diagnosed and treated. King George III of England suffered from recursive mental illness in the later part of his life, and his diagnosis and continued treatment was significant in showing the public how mental disorders differed from traditional known ailments.

A major advancement in psychiatry was propagated via the works of French doctor Philippe Pinel. Recognized as the father of modern psychiatry, Pinels' work was instrumental in ensuring that patients with mental disorders were not chained up in hospitals. Englishman William Tuke also drew upon Pinels' ideas and established the York Retreat, in Lamel Hill, York. The York Retreat would go on to become the quintessential foundation for treatment of patients with mental disorders; an archetype that would be imitated by other institutions worldwide.

The turn of the 20th century saw a sharp increase in the number of patients who were being admitted to asylums for mental disorders. The rapid increase in number of patients (due to better identification processes) was a significant contributor to the growth and development of modern psychiatry. The increasing role of universities in the establishment and administration of asylums meant that a much larger number of psychiatrists were being trained. Despite efforts, like the law passed by the French Government in 1838 to regulate asylum intakes, the psychiatric community was being overburdened by the immense number of patients admitted. As conditions in the asylum deteriorated, the reputation of psychiatry suffered in public eyes.

In popular culture, the 20th century and psychiatry are always associated (incorrectly) with Sigmund Freud. It was the work of Emil Kraepelin that was significant in reconciling different psychiatric theories and disciplines. Kraepelin, a German psychiatrist, introduced a more biological aspect to the field of psychiatry and promoted the earlier works of Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum. Kraepelin established the groundwork for modern psychiatry, based on scientific principles, and founded psychiatric genetics and psycho-pharmacy.

Based on the ideas and principles laid down by Kraepelin, modern psychiatry has evolved at an astonishing pace. With further progress in technology and bioscience, the world of psychiatry continues to flourish and patients are better diagnosed and treated. Not only has this been beneficial to the health of patients, but also helped in removing the social stigma often associated with mental disorders.

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