History | Social and Behavioral Sciences


If there are any objective truths about society, one may be that where there is an established society, there are undoubtedly outliers. There are countless reasons that people do not fit into established molds of societal structure. These reasons can range from personal preferences, to physical defects or illness, and even holding values and norms that are not widely accepted. Perhaps two of the most alienated and underserved populations in the United States today are the developmentally/intellectually disabled and those who suffer from mental illness. Often, people live with both intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses, compounding the isolating effects of each ailment.

Mental Illness

Today in the United States, it is reported that approximately One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 17−about 13.6 million−live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). These numbers are staggering, and demonstrate the clear need for quality, organized, compassionate and readily accessible mental health care.

Although these statistics are motivating in themselves, a perhaps more immediate concern is present in the minds of millions of Americans. The recent plethora of mass shootings, including the Newtown Connecticut Sandy Hook shooting and the Colorado movie theatre shooting have mobilized citizens to call for changes and improvements to the mental health care system. These calls for reform, though perhaps rooted in fear as well as media coverage, are not unfounded. For varying and complex reasons, around 3.9 million adults in the United States suffering from severe mental illness go untreated in any given year (Treatment Advocacy Center, 2015).

Alongside mental illness, it should be noted that persons with developmental disabilities are also often treated through the mental health care system. Although this group is perhaps not spoken about as often as those with mental illness, their needs are often intertwined with those who suffer from mental illness. In fact, many persons with DD have dual diagnoses, meaning the co-existence of the symptoms of both intellectual or developmental disabilities and mental health problems (National Association of persons with Developmental Disabilities, 2016). Although the ID/DD population will not be discussed extensively in this work, it is important to consider this population alongside the larger population of those with mental illness.


These facts regarding mental illness demonstrate the need for revision and critical review of the mental health systems working in this country. However, the current gaps and inefficiencies in care also pose a series of important questions; how did we get to this point? What is the overall history of mental illness and the care thereof? Can we trace back current ideologies and attitudes regarding mental health to the past? In this piece, these questions will be critically examined. In order to explore these questions, this work will be broken down by historical eras and points in time that are important to the development of mental health services. The implications of each era/development will be examined in regard to the present system of mental health care.