A Brief History Of Therapy & Where It All Began

Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Therapy has become such a large and important part of society. So, where did it all begin? Well, people have been helping each other through words for thousands of years. The first therapy happened over 3,500 years ago when healing “magic” and stories were a way for humans to come together and connect and joys, and love with others. Today, therapy is a tool that has an expansive reach. There are hundreds of types of therapy and hundreds of thousands of therapists that specialize in different areas of mental health and healthcare. Let’s take a look at the history of therapy and how it has impacted our lives today.

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What Did The Beginning Of Therapy Look Like?

It is difficult to give an exact date for the beginning of therapy as a practice. Humans have been helping each other out for centuries. Many agree that therapeutic-seeming practices have been documented since ancient Greece. However, “psychotherapy,” the official term for mental healthcare, officially became a term in the early 1800s.

Before psychotherapy, popular medical scientists frequently used and supported the idea of hypnotherapy, which involved mesmerizing patients to treat certain conditions.

However, it wasn’t until Sigmund Freud entered the psychology field that talk therapy started to become more and more popular. Freud created “psychoanalysis,” which was the process of a therapist speaking to a patient one-on-one and analyzing their thought patterns, actions, and emotions.

Although there were differing opinions during this time on what caused subconscious and conscious behaviors, Freud’s work has led to a huge industry of mental healthcare, unlike anything seen in his time.

Before psychotherapy became popular, people were still generally treating mental health conditions as curses, possessions, or hysteria. In fact, many women were treated for “female hysteria” from long before psychotherapy until the 1980s. Before the 1800s, women were commonly tried as “witches” if they exhibited mental health symptoms.

The first mental health hospital in the US opened in 1752, and practices that would be seen as inhumane today were commonplace. These practices included purging, bloodletting, electroshock therapy, and “twirling.” At the time, patients were labeled as “insane” or “lunatics.” People from towns nearby would even come “watch” the patients for entertainment. Today, these terms and practices would be highly offensive, which shows how far mental healthcare has come in the last few centuries.

When psychotherapy began to take place in the 1800s, mental institutions in many cities adopted the practice. People started to see patients as experiencing symptoms related to mental health, not the supernatural. Although therapy didn’t become the helpful and compassionate thing it is today for many years, it started to become more humane over time.

In these beginning days, psychotherapy was often heavily closely related to religion, often of the Christian faith. As well as this, it can be important to note that psychotherapy was most heavily available to wealthy white men and their families. Those assigned female at birth, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people of color were not factored into this research as widely, and they were often treated more severely, if at all.

What Types Of Therapy Existed Before? 

When psychotherapy became a practice in the early 1800s, the most common types of therapy were psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis therapy. Other types of therapy included:

  • Mesmerism- Using magnets to relieve distress (a practice still used today)

  • Phrenology- The study of the shape of the skull

Later on, as Freud and Jung’s differing opinions started to take hold in the world of psychology and psychiatry, more and more therapy methods started to unfold.

In the early 1900s, behaviorism started to take hold as a popular form of therapy. Behavioral therapists started to practice talk therapy, which developed into what we now know as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Other branches of therapy came out of this, including body psychotherapy, humanistic therapy, cognitive therapy, and somatic therapy. Today, we practice many of these types of therapy, including new offset branches like trauma therapy (EMDR) and exposure-response therapy.

Significant Events In Therapy History

Here are some of the most significant events that we know about from the development of psychotherapy in the early ages.

  1. In the early 19th century, Sigmund Freud started his version of “talk therapy” by working with children with learning disabilities.

  2. The first diagnostic statistical manual (DSM) was published in 1952 as a way for psychologists to diagnose clients for clinical reasons.

  3. In 1886, the first doctorate in psychology was given to Joseph Jastrow at John Hopkins University.

  4. In 1892, the APA (American Psychological Association) was founded.

  5. Margaret Washburn was the first woman to ever earn a Ph.D. in psychology in 1894

  6. In 1900, Sigmund Freud’s first book, An Interpretation of Dreams, was published, allowing his knowledge of psychotherapy to hit mainstream society.

  7. In 1936, a lobotomy was performed for the first time for mental health reasons.

  8. In 1953, the APA finally published a book of ethical standards for practicing psychotherapists and psychiatrists.

  9. In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a mental health condition.

As you can see, therapy and our understanding of mental health have made huge strides throughout the years, and medical professionals have learned a lot from the errors and triumphs of past psychologists who brought us where we are today.

How Has Psychology’s Past Affected The Present?

So, how does all of this relate back to today? How has mental health care taken the strides it has needed to get to where it is now?

Although it all started with the psychoanalytic therapy of Freud’s era, many famous psychologists have paved the way since. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has gained the most traction since its connection in the 1900s. It is the most similar type of therapy to what behaviorists back then would’ve practiced.

Today, therapists often talk to clients about more than subconscious thoughts, dreams, and speculation. Therapy is typically client-led and can be focused on several factors, including:

  • Family mental health history

  • Trauma

  • Past experiences

  • Interpersonal relationships

  • Habits, compulsions, and addictions

  • Behaviors

  • Feelings (or a lack thereof)

  • Responses to imagery or stimuli

  • Sensory needs

The psychologists of today have taken the aspects of all types of therapy from the past that work best and applied them to modern science. Even more than ever, psychology has started to be connected to neuroscience and psychiatry, which study the medical/physical aspects of the mind.

For example, we now know that certain mental health disorders can show up in the brain on an MRI. We also know that the brain can light up and react differently to stimuli depending on mental health. These medical studies show us that the existence of mental health conditions is more than just a possession or something spiritual.

Scientists have also started to study the chemical compounds in the brain and how they impact mental health. For example, depression is often caused by a lack of serotonin, dopamine, or other neurotransmitters in the body. We can also see the effect of trauma on the physical size of the brain’s emotional processing center, the hippocampus.

In Freud’s day, therapy was more focused on an abstract interpretation of thought, dreams, and experiences. The connection between science and psychology was still developing, and previous theories (such as the theory about skull size and shape) were eventually denied by scientists as being incorrect.

In 2021, 84% of therapists saw an increase in demand for therapy services. More people than ever before in history are using therapy. Does this mean that there are more mental health issues? 

How Effective Is Therapy?

So, does psychotherapy work? Is all of this history for nothing?

The answer is yes; therapy does work! Science even backs this up. We can see from studies that 75% of people who enter into therapy get some sort of benefit from it. In fact, these studies show that therapy can even be more effective than medication or medical intervention for mental health conditions. While some psychologists believe in biological factors that go into mental health, many studies are now showing that symptoms of most mental health conditions can be lessened or treated through talk therapy.

Want To Take Advantage Of Therapy’s Benefits For Yourself?

Today, online therapy is more popular than ever before. With online therapy, clients can meet with their provider from the comfort of their home and have a large database of therapists who specialize in many different areas. For those who can’t get to therapy in person, or those looking for a cost-effective alternative, online therapy can be an amazing way to get help.

Research supports the effectiveness of online therapy for treating a variety of mental health disorders. In fact, one review of studies regarding online cognitive behavioral found that that online treatment could significantly reduce symptoms of mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. Online therapy and similar treatment options may be the future of mental healthcare, especially as more and more people across the world seek out resources for themselves and others.


The history of therapy and other forms of mental healthcare is nuanced and as is true for many parts of recent history, sometimes clouded by prejudiced and harmful beliefs. Fortunately, progress over the past two centuries has transformed mental healthcare into a legitimate and truly helpful field. Thanks to the work of many professionals over time, we now have a much better understanding of mental health disorders and how to best treat them, whether it be from an in-person office or the comfort of your own home.

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