Were State Psychiatric Hospitals Better 100 Years Ago?

A fundamental intellectual tenet of mine is that to have a comprehensive and ‘honest with oneself’ grasp of historical and social long term processes, history of the subject being studied should be included. George Santayana’ famous quote that those who ignore history are ‘doomed’ to repeat, seems to hold more and more power of truth the older I become.

The history modern mental health care began in almshouses, shelters for the developmentally disabled and intellectually disabled, earliest perhaps by the Quakers of the early 1700’s in Pennsylvania. Theirs was an extraordinary (and still is) ethos of charity, helping those in need and one of the original origins of the philosophy of “non-violence,” embodied in conscientious objects in our wars and taking on the needs of the shunned, ‘repugnant,’ disabled persons who frightened the average person. It is no new concept that state hospitals were built intentionally out of the ‘boondocks,’ the countryside, away from towns so delicate sensibilities of citizens were not disturbed by the sight of unpredictable persons, that in reality before the era of modern treatment in the middle half of the 1900’s NO ONE really understood beyond crude empirical approaches, i.e., “we do not know how but this medicine works on hallucinations so let’s give it for that.”

There are many, many articles, books, some films from the earliest days of the then miraculous, wondrous Brownie 8 movie camera, that record the abysmal conditions of many state psychiatric hospitals in the Western world and the US, Latin America, Scandinavia, Europe and a few other regions and countries where modest efforts at housing the chronically mentally ill occurred. For instance, it is not well known that the famous country singer, Johnny Cash, established and supported an orphanage for children in Jamaica and did so very quietly as a true philanthropist.

If it were not for Google’s miraculous search bots, I would never have come across or read the article to which I wish wholeheartedly to refer the reader. It is from this week’s edition of the English newspaper, The Daily Mail. In the usual British brutal journalistic tradition it has simply ghastly title: “EXCLUSIVE: Chained to their beds with no heat or water, and left to lie in their own excrement: How the 19th century mentally ill were sent to hide away in grisly insane asylums and categorized as ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’ or ‘lunatics,’

This article itself is based on what appears to be a singularly striking book with lots of old pictures of life and patients in state psychiatric hospitals in Scotland and England, entitled, ” Lunatics, Imbeciles, and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth Century Britain & Ireland, by Kathryn Burtinshaw and Dr. John Burt.

Continue reading “Were State Psychiatric Hospitals Better 100 Years Ago?”

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