A Troubled Past: The Problematic History of Mental Healthcare for Women

As we wind down Women’s History Month, we would like to look more closely at the challenges that women have faced when it comes to mental healthcare throughout history.

This history is riddled with misconceptions, misdiagnoses, and downright dangerous treatments, and while significant progress has been made, the scars of that troubled past still linger. Gender bias in diagnosis and treatment persists, and the specific challenges women face often go unaddressed. Understanding this problematic history is not just an academic exercise – it’s vital for dismantling these lingering issues and creating a future where women’s mental health is taken seriously and treated effectively.

Let’s explore how societal expectations of femininity shaped the way women’s mental distress was interpreted. We’ll explore the questionable diagnosis of “hysteria” and the barbaric “cures” that followed. Finally, we’ll examine the ongoing fight for gender equality in mental healthcare and explore what we can do to ensure women receive the support they deserve. 

From Witchcraft to Hysteria: A Shift in Blame, Not Progress

For centuries, women exhibiting emotional distress weren’t labeled mentally ill – they were seen as vessels of evil, possessed by demons, or practicing witchcraft. This belief fueled a dark period of fear and violence, with countless women ostracized, tortured, or even burned at the stake. The dawn of the Enlightenment, however, ushered in a (supposedly) more scientific approach. The term “hysteria” emerged, derived from the Greek word for “womb” (hystera).

While this shift might seem like a step forward on the surface, it wasn’t exactly a victory for women. The blame for their mental state simply shifted from demonic forces to a malfunctioning womb. The core message remained distressingly similar: women’s mental health issues stemmed from their inherent biology, not from valid emotional responses or underlying conditions.

This new diagnosis, “hysteria,” became a convenient umbrella term for a wide range of symptoms, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • depression
  • fainting spells
  • insomnia

Nearly any “ill” could be neatly filed under the category of “hysteria.” And so could behavior or thoughts that were not disordered at all, but instead merely inconvenient to existing systems of power.

Essentially, “hysteria” medicalized any behavior that deviated from the narrow definition of what was considered “proper” femininity. Women who displayed too much emotion, questioned societal norms, or simply didn’t fit the mold of the submissive housewife were prime candidates for the “hysteria” label. This diagnosis not only dismissed their very real struggles but also served as a powerful tool for control. By attributing their behavior to a faulty uterus, it reinforced the idea that women were inherently irrational and emotionally unstable, further limiting their autonomy and agency.

Unequal Treatment and Dangerous “Cures”: A Recipe for Disaster

The diagnosis of “hysteria” wasn’t just a dismissive label – it became a springboard for a disturbing array of “treatments,” most of which were not only ineffective but quite literally dangerous. Here, the stark gender disparity in mental healthcare becomes painfully clear. Men presenting with similar symptoms might be prescribed rest or, in a dubious practice of its own, bloodletting. Women, however, faced a far more brutal and barbaric set of “cures.”


Rooted in the ancient belief that illness arose from an imbalance of bodily fluids, bloodletting involved draining significant amounts of blood from the patient. This practice, already questionable in its effectiveness, only served to weaken an already vulnerable woman with no impact on her mental state.

Electroshock Therapy

Though later used for a wider range of mental illnesses, this controversial treatment was initially employed on women diagnosed with “hysteria.” Patients were subjected to high-voltage electric currents, causing seizures and often leading to memory loss and cognitive decline.


Perhaps the most horrifying “cure” was the removal of a healthy woman’s uterus. This drastic surgery, based on the misguided belief that the uterus itself was the source of “hysteria,” had devastating physical and emotional consequences for many women.


This barbaric procedure involved severing connections in the brain, essentially lobotomizing the patient. While marketed as a “cure” for a variety of mental illnesses, it caused permanent neurological damage, personality changes, and often left the patient worse off than before.

These “treatments” highlight the shocking disregard for women’s well-being. They weren’t meant to address the underlying cause of mental distress – they were meant to control and subdue women deemed “hysterical.”  Many of these practices continued well into the 20th century, a stark reminder of the long road towards equitable and effective mental healthcare for women. 

The Legacy of Misogyny: A Shadow Still Lingering

The legacy of the “hysteria” diagnosis and its associated “treatments” casts a long shadow over mental healthcare for women today. While significant progress has been made – with a wider range of recognized mental health conditions and more nuanced approaches to treatment – the echoes of misogyny still linger in several ways:

Gender Bias in Diagnosis

Studies continue to show that women are more likely to be diagnosed with certain mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, while men are more likely to be diagnosed with conditions like ADHD. This can lead to women not receiving the most effective treatment for their specific needs.  For example, women experiencing symptoms of ADHD may be misdiagnosed with anxiety or depression because their presentation might differ from the stereotypical “hyperactive boy” archetype.

Underdiagnosis of Serious Conditions

Symptoms like fatigue or pain may still be dismissed as “emotional” in origin, leading to a delay in diagnosing and treating serious medical conditions. Women often have to be more persistent in advocating for themselves and their health concerns.  This can have serious consequences, as a delayed diagnosis can worsen the underlying condition and make it more difficult to treat.

Treatment Gaps for Women’s Specific Needs

Mental health conditions that disproportionately affect women, such as postpartum depression or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), may not receive the same level of research or treatment options as more common conditions.  This lack of research and treatment options leaves women struggling to find effective ways to manage these conditions.

Stigma Around Mental Health and Medication

Societal pressures may make women more hesitant to seek help for mental health issues or take medication due to fears of being judged or labeled “weak.”  The stigma surrounding mental illness disproportionately affects women, who are often expected to be the strong and nurturing caregivers in their families. This can prevent them from seeking the help they need to feel better.

The fight for gender equality in mental healthcare is far from over. Dismantling these entrenched biases requires a multi-pronged approach, including:

  • Education for healthcare providers: Training healthcare professionals to recognize gender bias in diagnosis and treatment, including how symptoms may present differently in women compared to men. This will ensure women receive accurate and appropriate care.
  • Increased research on women’s mental health: Focusing research efforts on conditions that disproportionately affect women, like PMDD and perinatal mental health, to develop better treatment options.  By understanding the specific biological and social factors that contribute to these conditions, researchers can develop more targeted and effective treatments.
  • Normalizing conversations about mental health: Creating a safe space for women to discuss their mental health experiences and seek help without fear of stigma. This can be achieved through public awareness campaigns, support groups specifically for women, and encouraging open communication within families and communities.
  • Empowering women as advocates: Equipping women with the knowledge and tools to advocate for themselves and their mental health needs with healthcare providers. This can involve providing resources on mental health conditions, communication skills workshops, and support networks for women navigating the healthcare system.

By acknowledging the troubling past and actively working towards a future free from bias, we can ensure that women finally receive the comprehensive and compassionate mental healthcare they deserve.

the road to wellness starts by seeking help. today.

Built on the principles of assertive community treatment, Galen Hope is an eating disorder and mental health treatment center offering individualized treatment options that include Intensive Outpatient (IOP), supported housing, and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). As a “Community of Integrated Wellness,” we pride ourselves in fostering a thoughtful and meaningful care experience that can guide our clients on their road to recovery and increased quality of life, regardless of diagnosis. Galen Hope currently offers separate, age-specific programming for adolescents ages 12-17 and adults 18 and up, of all genders.

To learn more, or to join our community for integrated wellness, please contact us today.


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