The History of Schizophrenia


What does the word schizophrenia mean? How old is schizophrenia?  Who first named the condition and how has our view on …

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What does the word schizophrenia mean? How old is schizophrenia?  Who first named the condition and how has our view on it evolved?  Let us take a journey thought time to learn more about this serious mental illness.

The word schizophrenia comes from the Greek words schizo meaning split, and phrene meaning mind, to describe fragmented thinking. In an article published on, it states that the term was not meant to convey the idea of split personality, a common misunderstanding by the public.  Since then the definition of schizophrenia has continued to change, as scientists attempt to more accurately classify the different types of mental diseases. In Greek mythology mental illness was thought of as punishment from the gods. In fact, it was not until 460-377 BC, the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates, mental illness became the object of scientific speculation.

According to an article on, written documents identifying schizophrenia can be traced to Egypt, as far back as the second millennium BC.  Depression, dementia, as well as thought disturbances that are typical in schizophrenia are described in detail in the Egyptian Book of Hearts. The Heart and the mind seem to have been synonymous in ancient Egypt.

The influential Roman physician Celsus believed in the idea that madness was punishment from the gods.  This idea was reinforced by the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. In the middle ages, religion alongside medieval asylums such as the Bethlehem in London treated mental illness.  Also, some monasteries transformed themselves into treatment facilities for the mentally ill.

The burning of the heretics (often people suffering from psychotic illnesses) began in the early Renaissance and reached its peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Deception of Demons, or the De praestigiis daemonum first published in 1563, argued that the madness resulted from natural causes, not divine punishment or demonic possession. The Church prohibited the book and accused its author, Johann Weyer of sorcery.

Between 1632 and 1784 John Locke in England and Denis Diderot in France challenged this by arguing that emotions and reason are caused by nothing more than sensations. Also, between 1745 and 1826 the physician Philippe Pinel in France began regarding mental illness as the product of exposure to social and psychological stressors. A landmark in the history of psychiatry, Pinel’s Medico-Philosophical Treatise on Mental Alienation or Mania called for a more humane approach to the treatment of mental illness. This moral treatment included respect, trust, confiding in your doctor, decreased stimuli, routine activity, and the abandonment of outdated treatments. At about the same time as Pinel in France, the Tuke family in England founded the York Retreat in the British Isles, the first institution for humane care for those with mental illness.

According to the Medical Research Council, the term schizophrenia is only about 100 years old. The disease was first identified as a mental illness by Dr. Emile Kraepelin in 1887 and the illness itself is generally believed to have accompanied mankind throughout history.  According to an article by The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health, Dr. Kraepelin used the term dementia praecox, meaning early dementia for individuals who had symptoms that we now associate with schizophrenia. He used this term because his studies focused on young adults with dementia. He was the first to make a distinction in the psychotic disorders between what he called dementia praecox and manic depression. Kraepelin believed that dementia praecox was primarily a disease of the brain, and particularly a form of dementia.

According to an article by Catherine Harrison, PhD on, the Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, coined the actual term, schizophrenia in 1911. He was also first to describe symptoms as negative or positive.  Bleuler changed the name because dementia praecox was misleading.  The illness did not lead to mental deterioration and could sometimes occur late as well as early in life, unlike dementia. Both Bleuler and Kraepelin subdivided schizophrenia into categories, based on observed symptoms and diagnosis. Over the years, mental health professionals have continued to attempt to classify types of schizophrenia.

Kraepelin’s classification of mental disorders, the Compendium der Psychiatrie, is the forerunner of the two most significant classifications of mental disorders, the International Classification of Diseases 10th Revision (ICD-10) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th revision (DSM-IV). Today these classifications are based on scientific research and expert opinion.  As well as listing mental disorders, they provide operational definitions and diagnostic criteria that doctors use to reach a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Five different types were outlined in the DSM-III: residual, paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, and undifferentiated. These classifications, while still employed in DSM-IV, are not reliably diagnosed. Many researchers are using other systems to classify types of the disorder, based on positive versus negative symptoms, the progression of the disorder and the co-occurrence of other mental illness. The theory is that differentiating schizophrenia types based on clinical symptoms will help to determine different causes of the disorder.

In the 1930s scientists thought schizophrenia was hereditary. Then after the World War II people began to wonder whether schizophrenia was a reaction to pathological relationships, or patterns of communication within a patient’s family. The management of schizophrenia generally took place in large asylums, where people remained confined for much of their lives.

Doctors began using antipsychotic drugs around the middle of the 20th century. The first antipsychotic drug, chlorpromazine became available in the 1950s.  A French surgeon, Henri Laborit, tested it as an anesthetic on soldiers and noticed that they became calmer. Later, research in a trial showed that these drugs were effective against the acute symptoms of schizophrenia. It started an era of hope for schizophrenia sufferers, their love ones and their careers.

Through research we now have a better understanding about schizophrenia.  It is through education that we can start to eradicate the negative stigma that shrouds this illness.  A greater understanding of schizophrenia has opened up multiple avenues for treatment, and a broad range of pharmacological, psychological, and social interventions have been scientifically proven to work. Thanks to fast paced on-going medical research a breakthrough medications and treatments are increasingly likely. Today, those diagnosed and living with schizophrenia have a better chance than at any other time in history of leading a normal life.

The Villa Orlando and Pasadena Villa’s Smoky Mountain Lodge are adult intensive psychiatric residential treatment centers for clients with serious mental illnesses. We also provide other individualized therapy programs, step-down residential programs, and less intensive mental health services, such as Community Residential Homes, Supportive Housing, Day Treatment Programs and Life Skills training. Pasadena Villa’s Outpatient Center in Raleigh, North Carolina offers partial hospitalization (PHP) and an intensive outpatient program (PHP). If you or someone you know may need mental health services, please complete our contact form or call us at 877-845-5235 for more information.





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