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See Inside January / February 2010

Mental Health: A Historical View

From lobotomy to antidepressants to scream therapy, the methods used to treat mental disorders have changed dramatically in the past century. Drug fads, commercialization and many other influences have shaped the way we diagnose and remedy mental illness. These recent releases illuminate the past to better inform our understanding of mental health today.

In the early 1950s the pharmaceutical industry questioned whether there would be a market for antianxiety drugs, Andrea Tone explains in The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers. By 1957, 36 million prescriptions for the first such drug—Miltown—had been filled, making it the first ever blockbuster drug and kicking off the rush for psycho pharmaceutical gold.

In Before Prozac: The Troubled History of Mood Disorders in Psychiatry, Edward Shorter questions whether we are indeed moving forward in making the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness more effective. Shorter quesetions the definition of depression itself and argues that power struggles—not science—have decided the drugs prescribed to treat it.

American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States, by Jonathan Engel, delineates a broader history of mental health treatments. Beginning with the rise of psychoanalysis, Engel eventually arrives at today’s focus on targeted treatment, which he argues has spawned a field fueled by pleasing consumers through unnecessary drugs such as Zoloft (sertraline, an antidepressant) and trendy remedies such as primal scream therapy.

Another popular form of treatment that has undergone intense commercialization is group support therapy, which began with Alcoholics Anonymous. In The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, Trysh Travis traces the rise of group therapy, suggesting that it ultimately offers ways to prevail over fundamental culture-based problems.

Compiled by Allison Bond

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