Human beings have been talking about their inner lives and challenges with one another therapeutically for centuries.

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Pinpointing the exact moment psychotherapy emerged as a discipline can be difficult. Did it begin the first time two friends met regularly to talk about life or was it when the first professional paper on the subject was written and published?

While we may never know where or when those first therapeutic conversations took place, we do have glimpses into history that can help us understand how psychotherapy has progressed through the years.

Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy. It can be any method used to help people living with emotional, psychological, or behavioral challenges.

The prefix “psycho” comes from the Greek language and means “soul” or “mind,” and it’s part of many words related to mental health, including psychotherapy.

People might seek psychotherapy for many reasons, including:

You might also seek psychotherapy as a form of relationship maintenance to keep up open lines of communication.

Many people attend regular therapy sessions, not because they have ongoing issues, but because they value guided communication.

Types of psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a varied discipline, and there’s no “one size fits all” for mental health treatment. You may benefit from singular therapy or a multifaceted approach.

Most people often have to try multiple modalities before finding what works best for them.

Psychotherapy can take many different forms, including:

Many ancient cultures viewed changes in mental health as omens, curses, or signs from the gods. Ancient Greeks, however, are often cited as the first to treat mental disorders as medical conditions.

In Ancient Greece, philosophers were the first to explore the connection between mental health and medicine. Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle all expressed curiosity into the realm of what would eventually become psychotherapy.

As time went on, physicians of the age, like Galen and Hippocrates, further explored the link between mental state and medicine, rejecting beliefs that medical conditions stemmed from otherworldly influences.

But the insights gained by the Greeks took a step back when the Roman Empire fell and the Dark Ages began.

The Middle Ages swung back toward a common belief in the supernatural, and the teachings of the ancient world connecting mental health and medicine were temporarily lost.

Those with mental health conditions often suffered due to a lack of understanding. It may have been more common to view someone struggling with mental health as “touched by witchcraft” rather than a person living with a disorder.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), known as one of the great ancient contributors of medical chemistry, was one of the few physicians during his time who first advocated for the use of psychotherapy.

While the term “psychotherapy” hadn’t yet been developed, Paracelsus believed the most common cause of poor mental wellness was an emotional disconnect between a person and the world.

The mindset of the Middle Ages persisted until the Victorian Era, where traditional beliefs about family, home, and self shifted to a more modern ideal known as the Bourgeois family.

The Bourgeois family model supported social psychology and helped normalize many vital elements of mental health recognized today, such as equality.

As the concepts around mental health started to evolve, physicians sought words to describe what they were witnessing in practice, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) received some of the earliest recognition as a founder of psychotherapy.

Known for his process of “mesmerism,” he focused on treating patients by using hypnosis.

Around the same time Mesmer was exploring hypnosis, French physician Philippe Pinel (1745–1826) was credited with founding the field of psychiatry as he sought humane treatment for those living with mental health conditions.

Pinel disagreed with mainstream assumptions that mental disorders were caused by supernatural forces.

Walter Cooper Dendy (1794-1871) introduced the term “psycho-therapeia” during the 19th century as he gained insight during his studies of the psyche and dreams.

However, it wasn’t until Josef Breuer (1842-1925) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) joined forces to investigate Breuer’s “talking cure” for nervous disorders that modern psychotherapy was truly born.

Freud and Breuer co-authored “Studies on Hysteria” in 1895 and are credited with formally founding psychoanalysis.

While both psychologists continued on their own paths developing psychotherapy methods and theory, Freud’s work laid the foundation for what was to come over the next 50 years.

Many of Freud’s apprentices went on to impact the history of psychotherapy in their own ways, contributing to the development of psychodynamic therapy:

  • Carl Jung
  • Alfred Adler
  • Otto Rank
  • Melanie Klein

In the 1950s, Carl Rogers continued the work of Freud’s successors and created the person-centered therapy approach.

By the 1960s, Aaron T. Beck had further expanded psychotherapy modalities by developing cognitive therapy, which led to what we know today as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Psychotherapy today is ever-evolving, much like it was centuries ago.

Many concepts and treatments are now backed by research, but the processes involved with treating mental health continues to expand.

Today, mental health professionals have access to volumes of empirical data and research backed by practice laws and diagnostic standards that were unavailable to scientists and therapists in the past.

As of the mid-1920s, psychoanalysis in the United States had to be medically qualified. By the late 1960s, psychoanalysts and clinicians benefitted from revolutionary diagnostic tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

A version of the DSM has been available since 1968 and offers criteria for diagnosing hundreds of mental health conditions.

In addition to gaining knowledge and evidence through time, modern psychotherapy can now reach more people through online formats. Thanks to the internet, you can:

The formal beginnings of psychotherapy are difficult to pinpoint, though it’s safe to say that human beings have been seeking support by talking with one another for millennia.

Our ancestors often viewed mental health conditions as the result of supernatural forces. Philosophers in Ancient Greece are often credited as the forebears of treating mental disorders as medical conditions, establishing the precursor to psychotherapy.

By recognizing mental health disorders as medical conditions, pioneers of the ancient world set the stage for contributions by visionaries like Pinel, Dendy, and Freud.

While modern psychotherapy is more widely available, understood, and supported now, stigma persists in some cultures and communities.

If you’re living with a mental health condition, it may help to understand that you’re not alone. Millions of people spanning human history have looked for ways to improve mental wellness.

From the lessons of the past, today’s professionals have many tools to help support you with psychotherapy modalities that may make a difference in your daily life.

If you need support, the American Psychologist Association’s psychotherapist locator can help connect you with a therapist, wherever you’re at in your mental health journey.