Mental Health History, Insane Asylums

Rob Dyke takes a look at the horrific past. A sobering reminder of how far we come.

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Mental Health History: Lobotomy (Disturbing content warning.)

Lobotomy is often considered one of the most cruel medical practices in human history. It grow popular in the early 20th century, by 1951, almost 20,000 lobotomies had been performed in the United States.  What is a Lobotomy and why is it so cruel? Allow me to quote Wikipedia. “Lobotomy (Greek: λοβός lobos “lobe (of brain)”; τομή tomē “cut, slice”) is a neurosurgical procedure, a form of psychosurgery, also known as a leukotomy or leucotomy (from the Greek λευκός leukos “clear, white” and tome). It consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain.”

What does that all mean? Well it means sticking a sharp object into your brain and cutting or stabbing the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes of a brain control your personality, emotions, emotional memory, and even cognitive functions like recognizing right from wrong, or Better from best.

So why was this practice done? The short answer is that it did solve your mental health problem, by making you near brain dead. There was a time when doctors didn’t care about the quality of life of the patient, but rather the quality of life of the ones that had to care of the patient. The mentality ill were seen as a burden, and it was a doctor or asylums job to relive people of that burden. Without a personality, there was no longer any screaming, kicking. Patients just became zombies that only needed to be feed and changed. While there were many less severe cases, leaving a patient functioning.Some even able to go back to normal lives. There was always emotional stunting. Many gained personality akin to children coining the phrase “surgically induced childhood.” Five to fifteen percent of patients died from the procedure and many others commuted suicide.

If there is anything left to save of your faith in humanity is that Lobotomy’s were controversial from the start. It is because of this controversy that it was so well studied and banned over the two decades it was popular.

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” -Tom Waits

 

 

Mental Health History: Wondering Womb

Mental Health has come a long way since ages past. As we strive to understand the complex mind we sometimes find even more questions. Our ancestors came up with many theory’s to try and understand what was happening. Demons and spirits were often blamed. We laugh at such notions but the scary truth is that some still follow such beliefs. Allow yourself a moment to look back on history and see one example of what what we would call silly but in times past was thought very real.

The wondering uterus was a theory that the womb of a woman was alive. An animal within an animal that would move out of place and cause many ills to a woman. In ancent Greece Hippocrates, of the famed Hippocratic oath, taught the theory of the wondering womb. Another Greek physician wrote.

“IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLANKS OF WOMEN LIES THE WOMB, A FEMALE VISCUS, CLOSELY RESEMBLING AN ANIMAL; FOR IT IS MOVED OF ITSELF HITHER AND THITHER IN THE FLANKS, ALSO UPWARDS IN A DIRECT LINE TO BELOW THE CARTILAGE OF THE THORAX, AND ALSO OBLIQUELY TO THE RIGHT OR TO THE LEFT, EITHER TO THE LIVER OR THE SPLEEN, AND IT LIKEWISE IS SUBJECT TO PROLAPSUS DOWNWARDS, AND IN A WORD, IT IS ALTOGETHER ERRATIC. IT DELIGHTS ALSO IN FRAGRANT SMELLS, AND ADVANCES TOWARDS THEM; AND IT HAS AN AVERSION TO FETID SMELLS, AND FLEES FROM THEM; AND, ON THE WHOLE, THE WOMB IS LIKE AN ANIMAL WITHIN AN ANIMAL”

This belief persisted in European academic medicine for centuries. Often claiming it was the cause for Female Hysteria, an outdated diagnosis that was still used up to the late nineteenth century. Defining itself as unmanageable emotional excesses.

 

People you should Know: Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) A teacher and activist for the better treatment of the mentally ill, many that had no one left to care for them. She is credited with the creation of the first generation of mental asylums in the US. In march of 1841 at 39 years old she volunteered to teach Sunday school for woman inmates at the East Cambridge Jail. There she witnessed such horrors that would change her life forever. She found drunks, prostitutes, mentally retarded, criminals, and the mentally ill all housed together in unheated, unfurnished and unsanitary condition’s.  When she questioned such conditions she was told “The insane do not feel heat or cold.”

Dorothea passionately lobbied state legislatures and the United States Congress. At a time when many thought the mentally ill would never be cured and better off left in such conditions Dix stated. “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.” She visited many jails and hospitals, taking extensive notes on the conditions she found giving a detailed account to the Legislature. Over the course of 15 years she covered half of the US and Europe.

Dorothea is often overlooked in history because she did not further our understanding of the mentally ill. However her achievements sparked a better future for the ill and are still being felt today.

People you should know: Philippe Pinel

 

Philippe Pinel (20 April 1745 – 25 October 1826)

Philippe Pinel wrote in his 1801 A treatise on Insanity  on the horrible treatment of the mentally ill in asylums “The blood of maniacs is sometimes so lavishly spilled, and with so little discernment, as to render it doubtful whether the patient or his physician has the best claim to the appellation of madman.” Pinel was a champion of the humane psychological approach. Arguing that the mentally ill should be viewed as suffering from a disease and should not be punished, tired of seeing the ill treated as demonic possession or sinful. Such thoughts were revolutionary at a time when patients were beaten, starved, bled, and chained.

When Pinel became the superintendent of the Bicetre Hospita, in 1793,  he removed the chains of several inmates, watched and saw increased improvement. Learning from Jean-Baptiste Pussin, a hospital superintendent, Philippe forbid harsh punishments and increased the standards of food in the hospital. He also started occupational therapy, and careful maintaining of patient case histories. Hiring only personnel he thought of as kind and intelligent, deaths decreased dramatically and the number of released inmates increased. Phillipe went on to become the director of the largest asylum in Europe and  became known as one of the founders of psychiatry.

Art known as Unchaining the Lunatics, depicting Pinel and Jean-Baptiste ordering the mentally ill unchained.