Psychotherapy is the result of hundreds of years of studying the human mind.

If you’ve ever gone to talk therapy, used medication for your mental health, or booked an appointment with a psychiatrist, you have the brilliant minds of psychology to thank for that.

Psychology, or the study and science of the human mind and behavior, is a field that exploded in the late 1800s and has continued to evolve rapidly since then. And from the study of psychology developed psychotherapy, one of the most widely used forms of mental health treatment in the world.

So, how did psychology evolve to become what it is today, and when did psychotherapy — and other therapeutic interventions for mental health conditions — arise from the field?

Below, we’ll explore the evolution and origins of psychology and psychotherapy, as well as discuss some of the modern pitfalls and what the future looks like for this field of study.

Many experts in the field of psychology trace the roots of the study as far back as ancient Greece, when philosophers began to ask philosophical questions related to the nature of the mind and human behavior.

However, what we know as modern psychology started to take off at the end of the 19th century, as experts in the field of psychical research began to explore psychology as more than just a philosophical concept.

Wilhelm Wundt is largely regarded as the father of modern psychology. In 1872, Wundt offered the very first course on the subject of scientific psychology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Less than a decade later, in 1879, Wundt opened the first-ever experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig, also in Germany.

It wasn’t until 1883 that G. Stanley Hall, a student of Wundt’s, established the first psychology laboratory in the United States at Johns Hopkins University. Over the next 20 years the number of laboratories would increase to almost 50.

In 1886, Joseph Jastrow became the first student ever to graduate with a doctorate in psychology, and a few years later, the U.S. would see the first professor in the field of psychology.

Around the turn of the century, psychology continued to see huge strides, with the foundation of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892 and the first psychology clinic for patients in 1896.

Around this time, new branches of psychology were also beginning to develop from the brightest minds in the industry, such as psychoanalysis — Sigmund Freud’s school of thought that became the inspiration for what we know today as psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy, sometimes called “talk therapy,” is one of the most effective forms of therapy for mental health conditions. During psychotherapy sessions, you work closely with a mental health professional to develop the skills necessary to improve your overall mental health.

So, how did the practice of psychotherapy actually develop?

As it turns out, the original inspiration was German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who became known for developing modern hypnosis. Mesmer’s use of hypnosis inspired many professionals of the era to develop their own methods, including Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, who would later go on to found psychodynamic psychotherapy in the early 1900s.

Psychotherapy has since evolved from the early 1900s practice to have a significant influence on the world of psychology, helping to inspire other forms of modern, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Before the development of psychology as a field of study, mental illness was viewed as a spiritual matter, and the symptoms of mental health conditions were often seen as supernatural or even demonic events.

However, it wasn’t until the end of the 1700s that the treatment of those living with mental illnesses began to shift, largely due to advocacy from French physician Philippe Pinel.

As the study of psychology continued to develop, new approaches, theories, and discoveries began to fuel the evolution of the field. From the early to mid-1900s, new schools of psychology developed, such as psychopharmacology and cognitive psychology — as did new treatment methods, such as lobotomy and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Many of the advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions we know today also arrived in the 1950s. For example, the first drug used to treat depression, imipramine, was developed in 1951 — followed closely by the creation of the first version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the most widely used mental health diagnostic tool, in 1952.

It’s because of the development and evolution of psychology that we can acknowledge the importance of our mental health. However, even though the demand for psychologists has continued to increase — especially in the COVID and post-COVID era — the field of psychology is not above criticism.

For example, some experts in the mental health field believe that one of the biggest problems with modern psychology is the overdiagnosis of mental health conditions. Conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are being diagnosed at higher rates, which some believe is most likely due to overdiagnosis.

Other criticisms of modern psychology touch on various factors, like genetics and neuroscience, diagnostic procedures, and medications, and how they have had a less than positive influence on the field.

Despite the potential flaws of modern psychology, the field has continued to evolve in a mostly positive direction.

As the stigma against mental health has started to decline, it has opened up the floor for people to talk about the impact of their mental illness without judgment. And more people than ever are realizing the importance of therapy, which has caused a rise in the demand for psychologists and mental health professionals.

Psychologists are also beginning to diversify their practices and expand into different needs areas, such as providing more diverse care and creating mental health startups. Plus, advances in neuroscience, genetics, and other fields of study continue to help us better understand the human mind and mental health.

And when it comes to mental health treatment options, experts continue to make strides. Not only are we seeing new therapeutic approaches become more popular, but medication and treatment options are continually evolving to offer more variety and better results.

Learn more about how to find the best therapist for you.

Psychology is a field of study with a long, rich history that spans many centuries, but the biggest advancements in the field have come over the last few hundred years.

From the induction of the very first experimental psychology laboratory in Germany to the development of modern psychotherapy by Freud and Breuer, the field of psychology has continued to advance in fascinating ways.

Ultimately, we have the great minds of psychology over the years to thank for the mental health diagnosis and treatment options we have today — options that continue to help improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe living with mental health conditions.