The History of Mental Health Treatment

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The history of mental health treatment is a long story. The first private hospitals, known as almshouses, for those with severe symptoms of mental illnesses and the infirmed elderly, were created in the early 18th century. In the early 19th century, a new idea about care for the mentally ill called “moral treatment” emerged, which focused on the belief that kindness and quietness in treatment would help with recovery.

In the 1840’s, Thomas Kirkbride developed the “Kirkbride Plan” for moral treatment that included sunshine, fresh air, privacy and comfort. Throughout the 1850s and ’60s Dorothea Dix traveled throughout the country promoting this approach. By the 1870s virtually all states had such asylums. By the 1890s, private almhouses were sending people to the asylums. This influx overwhelmed both space and resources of the asylums and threatened their attempts at humane treatment. 

The Great Depression in the 1930s drastically cut state appropriations and World War II created acute shortages of personnel. A move began to reduce costs. The large psychiatric hospitals began to be reduced to units within general hospitals. Some psychiatrists turned to the new Mental Hygiene movement and created outpatient clinics that focused on preventing psychiatric hospitalizations. Others focused on the brain pathology and experimented with electric shock therapies, psychosurgery and different kinds of medications. By the 1950s, with the rise of nursing homes for the elderly, the asylum period came to an end.

In Michigan, it was University of Michigan Professor William Herdman that set the wheels in motion to build a psychopathic hospital, which opened its doors in 1906, one of the first in the nation. The hospital has lead in cutting-edge research on brain function and the genetic underpinnings of mental illness symptoms ever since, including the development of the biopsychosocial model that is the foundation of psychiatry today.

It is out of this same reductionist approach that Partial Hospitalization was born. Doctors in the 1950s recognized that not all people being treated for mental illness needed overnight stays, even if they needed something more than a weekly appointment in an outpatient clinic. In the early 1960s a group of clinicians involved in the relatively new treatment approach of “day hospital” began to discuss the challenges of this approach. By the end of that decade they had organized the American Association for Partial Hospitalization (AAPH). In 1988, Congress approved a major benefit change for Medicare by including reimbursement for PHP that met a strict definition – treatment five days a week, six hours a day.

By the early 1990s, the group had grown to more than 1,200 members and published standards and guidelines for this mode of treatment. In the mid-1990s, the organization became the Association for Ambulatory Behavioral Healthcare (AABH) and now represents hundreds of providers and professionals in the United States, and is the leading advocate for Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) nationally. PHP is often used as a step down from an inpatient stay, or as a way to prevent an inpatient stay. Partial is appropriate for people who are experiencing psychiatric symptoms that interfere with their daily functioning, but are not of imminent danger to themselves or others.

The development of the IOP has followed a different route, one steered by the treatment of addictions. Addiction treatment began in an organized way between 1750 and 1850 through “mutual aid societies.” The asylum model was followed with the opening of “inebriate homes” throughout the 19th century. Outpatient treatment for addiction began with the opening of the Charles B. Towns Hospital in 1901 in New York. In 1906, a church-based therapy program began at Boston’s Emmanuel Clinic, which laid the foundations for the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, which began in earnest 25 years later. Outpatient addiction treatment options grew from 1920s through the 1950s. In the 1960s, insurances began to reimburse for treatments, which lead to continued growth in options. The famous Betty Ford Clinic was founded in 1982.

With the recognition that addictions often have co-occurring mental illness symptoms, by the 1990s addiction programs were expanding to include treatment for mental illness symptoms also, either as dual diagnosis with addictions or stand-alone diagnoses. Now there are IOP programs that specialize in addictions and those that treat specific mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, bipolar, PTSD, as well as general mental illness. There are also IOPs that serve specific age-related populations such as geriatrics, adolescents and children, as well as general adult programs. IOP may be anywhere from three to five days a week, from three to five hours a day, depending on the program.

Michigan has 25 Partial Programs. MidMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot’s PHP began in 1995. It is one of only three such programs in Michigan north of Lansing. The Gratiot program is an adult program and operates Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. The average length of stay is seven days. Insurance coverage is the same as other hospitalization coverage. MidMichigan also has an IOP program for seniors in Gladwin called Senior Life Solutions, which operates three days a week.

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions in the U.S. and the most common conditions treated in Gratiot’s PHP. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression affects about 7.1 percent of the U.S adult population, while anxiety affects about 18 percent of U.S. population. Adults with depression have a 64 percent greater risk of coronary artery disease. Depression often co-occurs with medical conditions; 25 percent of cancer patients experience depression, 10 to 27 percent of post-stroke patients, 30 percent of heart attack survivors, 50 percent of patients with Parkinson’s disease, 30 percent of diabetes patients, and 40 to 70 percent of adult caregivers of the elderly struggle with depression. Women are twice as likely as men to have depression.

Research shows that people with anxiety are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor. In fiscal year 2021, depression was the most common diagnosis seen at Gratiot’s PHP with nearly 83 percent of patients having this diagnosis. Thirty percent of those with depression had a secondary diagnosis of anxiety, with an addition 5 percent of patients having a primary anxiety diagnosis.

Over 100 years of modern treatment of depression and anxiety has made it clear that these common conditions are very treatable. In the 25 years of treating them in a day treatment setting the process has been clarified and refined and is now quite successful.

For those who are struggling with depression or anxiety, the Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MidMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot may be reached at (989) 466-3253. Senior Life Solutions can be reached at (989) 246-6339. Those interested in more information on MidMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit


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