Get Informed! 4: History of Mental Illness


Mental health and mental illness have affected human civilization across time. However, understandings of the causes of mental illness have been greatly influenced by the knowledge/science of the time, as well as by the institutions (e.g., religion, educational institutions, the media) and people in positions of power (e.g., politicians, professional organizations, special interest groups) who have shaped laws, social values and norms. Definitions and ways of understanding mental health and mental illness have evolved over time in line with changes in scientific understanding and society more broadly. In this activity you will perform online research and create you own timeline about the history of the understanding of mental illness to share with the class.


1. Do some preliminary research on the history of the understanding of mental health and mental illness. To get started, check out this History of Psychology Timeline, and this article called The Many Faces of Mental Illness Through Time.

Be sure to look up resources with a global historical perspective. You could approach this activity from a variety of perspectives. For example, you could check out information related to:

  • A particular region or country in the world;
  • A particular world religion or faith group;
  • A particular era in history; and/or
  • An ancient or indigenous civilization like the Mayans, ancient Egyptians or the Romans.

2. Create a timeline that reflects your research. You can generate visually appealing timelines that include multimedia content, such as audio and video, using the free programs below: Or, if you'd like to generate your timeline in a more traditional format, try:
Include content from multiple sources and in multiple formats, such as video and audio, in your timeline. You may even want to consider narrating your timeline.

3. Present your timeline in front of the class or upload them to the History of Mental Health Timelines folder in Class Files.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand mental health as being influenced by a variety of historical and social cultures, beliefs, and policies
  • Explore the different institutions that have addressed mental illness
  • Understand how the perception of causes of mental illness has changed
  • Learn about the history of stigma surrounding mental illness

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