The medical field of psychiatry in its current state, while far from perfect, does a great deal of good for a great many people, myself included. Things weren’t always that way, though, and luckily we’ve come a very long way from some of the downright barbaric practices of the previous century. As both a mental health clinician and someone living with a mental illness, I certainly appreciate the progress that’s been made.
Here’s a look at some of the lowlights from the 20th century.
Body parts? Not necessary
Dr. Henry Cotton was a psychiatrist who headed up a New Jersey psychiatric institution in the early 1900s. He firmly believed that mental illness was due to infection, and to cure the mental illness the source of the infection must be removed from the body. This led to the removal of teeth, tonsils, spleens, ovaries, testicles, colons, and other bits and pieces.
Because there were no antibiotics at the time, anyone who didn’t have an infection before surgery would most certainly develop one afterwards. And who needs a colon anyway?
Who wants “mental defectives” procreating and making more crazy people? As repulsive as this may sound, it was part of eugenics, the concept of producing s higher quality gene pool by keeping undesirables from reproducing. In the early 1900s this was a popular idea, and people with mental illness were a prime target.
In the United States, Indiana was the first state to pass a mandatory sterilization law in 1907. Twenty other states soon followed, with California being the most active in applying the law. Overall there were 65,000 people in 33 states who were targeted for compulsory sterilization. Mostly women were affected. Women who got pregnant while unmarried were considered “feeble-minded” for not adhering to societal (aka male?) standards, and so they were thrown into the pot as well.
The practices in the U.S. pale in comparison to Nazi Germany, not surprisingly. It’s estimated that somewhere between 73-100% of people with schizophrenia in Germany, or around 250,000 individuals altogether, were sterilized or killed. This began in 1934 and continued to the end of World War II in 1945. The doctors who led the sterilization program believed that schizophrenia was due to a recessive gene, and could be eradicated entirely through a sterilization/extermination program.
When a program to kill chronically mentally individuals was first proposed to Adolf Hitler, his response was:
“It is right that the worthless lives of such creatures should be ended, and that this would result in certain savings in terms of hospitals, doctors and nursing staff.”
The strategy of killing people with gas in a “shower” room was first implemented in asylums, and was “effective” enough that usage spread to concentration camps.
A Portuguese neurologist was the first to perform lobotomies to “treat” mental illness, and was later awarded a Nobel prize for his work. This involved drilling holes in the skull and disrupting neuronal fibres in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Lobotomies tended to dull people both emotionally and cognitively and blunt their personality. Some people died during the procedure, and others were left with serious brain damage.
American neurologist Dr. Walter Freeman wanted to come up with a method of doing lobotomies that wouldn’t require an operating room and general anaesthesia, as this wasn’t available at most psychiatric hospitals. He came up with the transorbital (through the eye socket) ice pick lobotomy, which involved jabbing the ice pick tool into the prefrontal cortex. The year 1949 was prime time for lobotomies in the U.S., with 5074 procedures performed. Approximately 40,000 total were completed in the U.S. Lobotomies were carried out in a number of other countries as well.
In other medical insanity, we have insulin shock therapy, which was used for schizophrenia in the 1940s and 1950s. Enough insulin was administered to get the patient’s blood sugar so low they went into a coma. Coma was the goal, and convulsions were a nice little side benefit. These weren’t quiet, peaceful comas; they included assorted moaning and thrashing about. After about an hour, glucose was administered to bring the patient out of the coma. John Nash, who was depicted in the movie A Beautiful Mind, was treated with insulin shock therapy at one point.
All in the family
Why blame someone’s genes when you could just blame their mother? From the 1940s to the 1970s, the notion of the “schizophrenogenic mother” was popular, based on the idea that the way a mother raised a child could result in schizophrenia. This idea was driven by a psychoanalytic perspective and even made it into psychiatry textbooks at the time.
Alas, this idea was not based in reality whatsoever, so it ended up going the way of the dodo bird.
The process of deinstitutionalization, moving people from psychiatric hospitals into the community, began in the 1960’s with legislation introduced by President John F. Kennedy. Community mental health centres were created, but the most severely ill fell through the very wide cracks, and many ended up homeless or incarcerated.
Deinstitutionalization sounds great in theory, but depending on the severity of someone’s illness, a huge amount of support may be needed to allow them to function well in the community. This requires dollars, which are seldom forthcoming. The negative effects of deinstitutionalization continue to be seen today.
It’s fascinating (not in a good way) that practices can be viewed as acceptable at the time but in retrospect are profoundly disturbing. In spite of all the challenges that those of us living with mental illness face now, we are much better off compared to 100 years ago.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Lobotomy
- Fuller Torrey, E., & Yolken, R.H. (2010). Psychiatric genocide: Nazi attempts to eradicate schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36(1), 26-32.
- Wikipedia: Compulsory steriliation
- Wikipedia: History of psychiatry
- Wikipedia: Insulin shock therapy
- Wikipedia: Lobotomy
About the guest author:
Ashleyleia is a talented blogger and author from Canada. Her entertaining and informative blog is called: Mental Health @ Home.