A History of Mental Health
by Brian Kirk
Insanity likely descended upon the first person to question the mysterious nature of our existence. I know I had to hold onto something for support the first time existential questions entered my mind. What, you mean we’re all going to die?
But the manor in which we diagnose and treat the full spectrum of mental disorders has evolved over the last century or so. Sadly, it’s not a heartwarming tale. Let’s take a look at how humans have come to understand outbursts of insanity, and the attempts we’ve made to restore mental health.
Imagine living in 1796, and the conditions at the time. You’re in Pennsylvania visiting a relative in the state asylum. Mind your head as you wind down the stairs that lead to the dark basement, which could more aptly be called a dungeon. Here patients receive the greatest care while confined to chains and forced to sleep in crowded cells on straw. Keepers are on hand with whips in case someone becomes too agitated. Occasionally, they’re granted a bath. “Hi Mom, feeling better?”
What does a day of therapy look like? Well, at the time many physicians believed that evoking terror was an effective way to restore mental health. One common method was ‘The Bath of Surprise.” Wow, that sure sounds nice. Not so fast. This is where a patient is blindfolded and led across a trapdoor that drops them into a cold tub of water.
Variations on this clever approach emerged over time.Renowned clinician, Joseph Guislain, created a drowning device called, “The Chinese Temple,” which was basically a small iron cage. The patient would be locked in the cage and slowly lowered into a body of water, such as a pond. The cage would be raised once the “desired effect” had been attained, usually when the bubbles ceased to rise.
I love the names given to some of these treatment devices. Such as “The Tranquilizer Chair.” Sounds relaxing, right? Imagine being confined to this chair – your arms bound, wrists immobilized, feet clamped together, vision blocked by a wooden contraption encasing the head – and having a bucket placed underneath you for bowel movements. You’ll need it, as you’ll be sitting here for a long time – in some cases, for as long as six months.
Confinement and hydrotherapy were deemed so therapeuticthey were soon combined. One example was the continuous bath, which involved strapping a patient into a hammock suspended in a bathtub. The top of the tub was covered by a canvas sheet that had a hole for the patient’s head. At times, cold water would be used to fill the tub, and at other times water almost too hot to touch. Patients would be kept there for days on end, with bandages wrapped around their eyes and ears to shut out other sensations. Ah… just like being at the spa.
The problem with these treatments was that they just weren’t very reliable. So physicians continued to look formore effective cures. Like good old Henry Cotton, superintendent of Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey, who, in 1916, decided that insanity was caused, in part, by bacteria. So he started pulling his patients’ teeth. According to him, this procedure cured 25% of them. That left 75% unimproved, prompting him to look for other body partsthat might be harboring bacteria. He eventually went on to remove his patients’ tonsils, colon, gall bladder, appendix, fallopian tubes, uterus, ovaries, cervix, and seminal vesicles. He claimed to achieve an 85% cure rate with his operations. An investigation revealed, however, that nearly 43% of the patients who underwent Dr. Cotton’s therapy died. Small price to pay for peace of mind.
Learning about how we’ve historically treated the mentally ill not only inspired the subject of my debut novel, We Are Monsters, it influenced its title.
In this book a brilliant, yet troubled psychiatrist is working to develop a cure for schizophrenia. At first, the drug he creates shows great promise in alleviating his patient’s symptoms. It appears to return schizophrenics to their former selves. But (as you may imagine) something goes wrong. Unforeseen side effects begin to emerge, forcing prior traumas to the surface, setting inner demons free. His medicine may help heal the schizophrenic mind, but it also expands it, and the monsters it releases could be more dangerous than the disease.
I have tremendous sympathy for the mentally ill, and am horrified by the way they have been, and continue to be treated. This book, in many ways, pays homage to all who have had to endure inhumane treatments by monsters in human disguise.
Anyone interested in checking out We Are Monsters can order a copy here.
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