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From the lunatic asylum to mental health care


The 19th century term „lunatic asylum“ was used to describe an institution, where mentally ill people – deemed to be „lunatics“ – were kept away from society for their own good (reduction of stress) as well as for the good of society (reduction of violence and crime). The use of the word „lunatic“, derived from the Latin expression for „being moonstruck“, emphasizes that mental afflictions were seen as something almost supernatural or at least spiritual in nature.

The change to the term „insane asylum“ at the end of the 19th century therefore signalizes a change in thinking as well. No longer was „lunacy“ seen as some mysterious condition that could not be affected. Rather, the word „insane“ implies that the person afflicted by a mental disorder is not „sane“ in a physical sense.

This change in thinking is carried even further with the advent of the term „mental hospital“ in the 20th century. As Professor Williams explains in her fourth lecture on 20th century mental hospitals, not only does the use of the word „hospital“ show, that psychiatry had finally become an accepted medical profession, it also implies that mental illnesses could potentially be cured just as well as physical illnesses through scientifically sound therapy.

With the contemporary term „mental health care“ also comes the complete abandonment of the need for a specific local installation (asylum or hospital) to provide treatment for people suffering from mental ailments. The term „mental health care“ furthermore invokes the image of a continuous process that is of potential importance for every member of society – and not only for those who are suffering from acute mental health problems. Rather, „mental health care“ becomes an issue of prevention, just like regular „health care“ is not only of interest for sick people but rather concerns every member of society.

These lecture notes were taken during 2012/2013 installment of the MOOC “The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness” taught by Prof. Charmaine Williams of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work / University of Toronto at Coursera.org.
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