History of Schizophrenia: Where It All Began and How Far We Have Come

Although schizophrenia goes back several thousand years, this most serious of psychiatric disorders was not officially coined “schizophrenia” until 1911. Throughout time the disorder has been regarded and labeled in a variety of ways. As early as 1400 B.C., writings in the ancient Ayur-Veda manuscripts described symptoms which sound very similar to schizophrenia 1.

Early Barbaric Treatments

Due to its bizarre and often frightening symptoms, schizophrenia was believed for a very long time to be the result of possession by (or involvement with) the devil or an evil spirit of some sort. Unfortunately, schizophrenics were often exorcised, flogged, starved, or burned at the stake as a result. Some were subjected to “trephining”, in which holes where drilled into the skull in an attempt to let the spirits out.

For several centuries, seriously mentally ill individuals were also “treated” with a procedure known as “bloodletting”. Bloodletting involved cutting the patient and allowing “excess” blood to be released. The illness was attributed to the excess blood. As can be imagined, many individuals with schizophrenia were killed by these barbaric and cruel methods.

Progress in the Late 19th Century

In the latter part of the 1800s, scientists and doctors were starting to develop a better grasp of schizophrenia. The term “hebephrenia” was coined by Ewald Hecker in 1871, for those with symptoms of cognitive disorganization and silliness 2. The term is still used today by some to refer to disorganized schizophrenia.

A few years later, Emile Kraepelin brought us even closer to an understanding of the disorder. He adopted the term “dementia praecox”, which literally means early dementia, to refer to schizophrenia symptoms which typically appear in late adolescence or early to mid-twenties. The term, however, was inaccurate in that schizophrenia is not a type of dementia at all. He did, however, correctly regard it as a brain disorder.

Sadly, although progress was being made, treatment hadn’t improved much. Schizophrenics were often tied up or chained and locked away in dark, filthy “insane asylums”. It was not unusual for them to be flogged as part of their treatment there. The public could even pay money to come into these dreadful institutions just to look at the patients.

20th Century

In 1911, Dr. Eugen Bleuler first used the term “schizophrenia” to label this complex disorder. A psychiatrist from Switzerland, Dr. Bleuler noticed that many patients’ minds seemed to be “split off” from reality. Hence his use of the term “schizophrenia”, which literally translated means “split mind”. A few decades later in 1957, the definition currently used for schizophrenia was created by Kurt Schneider.

While the conditions of mental institutions slowly improved with time, they were far from ideal even in the early to mid-twentieth century. Treatments for schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders now included electro-shock therapy (ECT) and lobotomies, in which part of the brain is surgically removed. ECT is still used today in some cases, despite ongoing controversy surrounding it as a treatment option.

Antipsychotic Medications

Treatment with antipsychotic medication first started in the early 1950’s, with the introduction of Thorazine. Since then, many antipsychotic medications have been developed. These medications, while far from ideal, have allowed many individuals with schizophrenia to live productive and fulfilling lives.

Progress Has Been Made

Currently, there is still no cure for schizophrenia. While much progress continues to be made in terms of better understanding the disorder, there is still much to learn. Hopefully, as time goes on, treatment options will continue to improve and ultimately, either a cure and/or a way to prevent the disorder will be discovered.

References

  1. What is Schizophrenia?
  2. Schizophrenia History: Definitions Through Time

Written By: Dr. Cheryl Lane, PsyD
Photo: Pexels

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