For year medications for patients only sedated them, calmed them down. Then, in my medical school days in the 1950s drugs which could really help began to be available. That story is interesting and told to some extent in the book I’ve co-authored with Dr Alan Schmetzer: Dr Edenharter’s Dream: How Science Helped the Humane Care of the Mentally Ill 1896-2012.
One of the breakthroughs was just fortuitous. In 1949, a psychiatrist in Australia was studying substances in urine of patients with Bipolar Disorder injected into laboratory rats in different solutions. Rats given these chemicals in lithium solutions seemed calmer. In a leap of faith, he gave lithium salts to some patients with mania. Their manias disappeared. Lithium carbonate is still a major component of treatment of mood disorders and has been shown to decrease the number of suicides in depressed phases. In the 1950s someone observed that patients in a tuberculosis ward who were depressed were more likely to feel better if they were taking one particular anti-tuberculosis medication. A variation of that drug became the first antidepressant. Today, new antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and anti-anxiety medications can be designed on the basis of molecular biology and other advanced scientific methods. So we can truly appreciate good observations on the part of care-givers and the power of experimental science.
At the turn of the twentieth century, those who practiced psychoanalysis and those who used behavior therapy were in disagreement with one another about who had the best treatment. By mid-twentieth century new and cooperative approaches to psychotherapy were being devised. Group therapy, family therapy, and couples therapy began to be used when it seemed these methods would help. Nowadays, professionals are using the combination of specific medications and specific psychotherapies tailored to the individual patient. All these available treatments don’t cure everyone, but compared to fifty years ago enormous advances have been made. So much more can be done for psychiatric patients than when I first tentatively sat down in the physician’s chair in a psychiatry clinic office.
Find out more about Indiana’s history of dealing with its mentally ill in Dr. Edenharter’s Dream: How Science Improved the Humane Care of the Mentally Ill in Indiana 1896–2012.