History of Mental Health in America | Banyan Treatment Centers
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The History of Mental Illness in America


Over 52.9 million (21%) Americans struggle with mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.1 These issues can be debilitating and impact not only the individual but also their loved ones. Considering that suicide, a common outcome of untreated mental illness, is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, it’s important to be proactive in helping those who may be struggling with their mental health. To better understand the impact of disorders like depression, anxiety, and OCD, we’re looking into the history of mental illness in America and how the nation is currently handling these issues.   

Brief History of Mental Illness in America

The history of mental health disorders in America has been marked by a complex and often disturbing relationship between people with mental illnesses and society at large. Early on in America’s history, individuals with mental health issues were often shunned and forced to live in institutions or asylums that provided little or no treatment.

The term ‘mental hygiene’ was first used by William Sweetzer in 1843. After the Civil War, which fueled concerns about the risks of unsanitary conditions, Dr. J. B. Gray, a psychiatrist, envisioned community-based mental hygiene that operated through education, socialization, religion, and involvement in national life.

Fast-forward to 1893 when Isaac Ray, a founder of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), defined the term mental hygiene as "the art of preserving the mind against all incidents and influences calculated to deteriorate its qualities, impair its energies, or derange its movements. The management of the bodily powers in regard to exercise, rest, food, clothing, and climate, the laws of breeding, the government of the passions, the sympathy with current emotions and opinions, the discipline of the intellect—all these come within the province of mental hygiene."2

It was at the turn of the 19th century that Darwinian thinking dominated biological and social sciences. At the time, mental disorders were caused by biological factors – primarily genetic – representing mutations that were failed adaptations for survival in their environments. As you can imagine, this view provided little hope for recovery for those affected.

By the 1890s, Adolph Meyer, a major supporter of early treatment for reducing the severity and reoccurrence of mental illness, was convinced by his experience with mental hospital patients that man needed a biologically sound idealism to recover and cope with mental illness properly. From this, his concept of mental hygiene sprang, which expanded to include reaching out to the community to prevent mental illness and preserve good mental health through education.

It wasn’t until Clifford Beers wrote his book "A Mind That Found Itself," (after being released from a mental institution) that the concept of a permanent healthy agency would be proposed. In his book, Beers proposed the creation of a permanent agency that would educate the public to prevent mental illness.

This led to the establishment of the first mental hygiene society, the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene, in 1908. This society aimed to combat the lack of education and stigma regarding mental health problems. What’s more, Meyer believed that mental hygiene efforts should be based on scientific research, and thus, he proposed a biographical approach to studying and treating mentally ill patients.

Another event in 1908 was the National Committee for Mental Hygiene being founded, with William Welch and Thomas Salmon playing leading roles in its establishment. During World War I, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene focused on treating and studying mental health issues in the armed services and was successful in identifying and treating "shellshock" casualties. Due to the success of this committee, in 1915, Meyer proposed the creation of community mental hygiene districts that would manage the efforts of social agencies to prevent mental illness and promote treatment.

Moving forward to 1963, the expansion of the mental hygiene movement under the National Institute of Mental Health resulted in the Department of Mental Hygiene. This then became a regular aspect of the School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1963. This work provided a firm foundation for mental health treatment and services all over the world.

What Is the Current State of Mental Health in America?

Unfortunately, we see tragic stories in the news about suicides, addiction, and other mental health struggles. Now more than ever, it’s time to be transparent and talk about how we truly think and feel instead of keeping it inside.

There can be many individuals surrounding you that deal with depression or anxiety daily, and these diseases can be so debilitating that it seems impossible to function. Many people are starting to speak out about their struggles and become more open, and this will only help others relate to the common issues. Fortunately, this can lead to more and more treatment being sought out.

The current state of mental illness in America is a complex issue with various contributing factors. Mental health problems can affect people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mental disorders can range from mild to severe and can significantly impact a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day lives.

Some of the most common mental health conditions in America include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Co-occurring disorders, such as addiction and mental illness, are also common.

Here are some statistics on mental health in America that will better illustrate how the nation is being impacted:1

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year.
  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6 to 17 experiences a mental health disorder each year.
  • 1 in 20 U.S. adults experiences serious mental illness each year.
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 14.

Access to mental illness treatment is a significant challenge in the U.S., with many individuals hitting roadblocks to care, such as cost, stigma, and a lack of treatment availability. This has resulted in misdiagnosis, underdiagnosis, and lack of treatment for mental health disorders, which can have long-term consequences for the individual and their loved ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made its mark on the history of mental illness in America. Since March 2020, we have seen increased rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions being reported across the board. This has further highlighted the significance of addressing mental health as a key component of improving and sustaining overall health and well-being.

Despite the challenges many Americans have faced concerning their mental illness, there have been positive developments in recent years. These developments include increased public awareness and advocacy efforts, expanded insurance coverage for mental health care, and the use of telehealth for mental health to improve access to care. Our work isn’t done, however, as there’s still much that can be done to address the state of mental illness in America and ensure that everyone has access to the treatment and support they need to recover.

On this note, if you or someone you care about is battling a mental illness, Banyan Treatment Centers can help. With numerous outpatient and residential mental health facilities across the country, Banyan has helped thousands of people learn how to properly cope with their disorders and live full lives. We can help you, too.

Call Banyan Mental Health today at 888-280-4763 or send us your contact information, and we’ll reach out to you as soon as possible about our services.


  1. NAMI - Mental Health By the Numbers
  2. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – Origins of Mental Health

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Alyssa is Banyan’s Director of Digital Marketing & Technology. After overcoming her own struggles with addiction, she began working in the treatment field in 2012. She graduated from Palm Beach State College in 2016 with additional education in Salesforce University programs. A part of the Banyan team since 2016, Alyssa brings over 5 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.

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