Skip links

Resource: History of Mental Health Treatment

Trigger warning: Some grotesque medical imagery
*This is one of a series of posts we are planning for our readers to use as a tool to help someone in their life better understand the tenets of mental health.

“Without a vivid link to the past, the present is chaos and the future unreadable.” – Jason Epstein

doctor tools

MANAGING ANXIETY

Though there are still concerns with how we treat people with mental illness today, dealing with diagnosis struggles, m-m-m-m-meds adjustments, and more, we should all be relieved we are living in this era when it comes to treatment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness(1), about 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year.

Tricia Hussung, a higher education writer, published an article(2) on Concordia University’s blog to cover obsolete mental illness treatments, and some of them are downright disgusting. I would highly recommend giving her piece a gander, preferably before you have eaten, but below are a few that stand out.

Trephination and Lobotomy

The Reader’s Digest version of these two are violent and gross. Strangely, the adaption of both happened centuries apart, though similar.

Trephination is an ancient(5) practice with evidence dating back to the Neolithic Period (3900 – 1700 BC).  The practice includes drilling or scraping a hole into the skull to “safely” expose the dura mater around the brain to relieve pressure and therefore “heal” the issue.

If you think that is stomach-turning, how about a lobotomy which a BBC article (6) quotes a psychiatrist describing it as “putting in a brain needle and stirring the works.”

Yuck.

In 1935, a Portuguese neurologist named Egas Moniz began what he called a frontal leucotomy which involved drilling two holes into the skull then pushing a sharp instrument from side to side in order to cut the connections between the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain. An American neurologist, Walter Freeman, began this procedure in 1936 in the U.S., streamlining it until he replaced it in 1945 with the transorbital lobotomy.

The transorbital lobotomy involved a pick-like instrument that would be forced to the back of a patient’s eye socket to pierce the bone between the sockets and frontal lobe. Once through, the pick would slice the connections between the frontal lobe and the brain. Thankfully, the practice began to fall from use in the 1950s with the rise of medications for treating those who were mentally ill.

empty room windows

Asylums

Nowadays when we hear the word asylum our thoughts turn to politics or to horror movies, but 100 years ago it was where many who fit under the “other” category would be sent. The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s fourth definition (3) of asylum – even beginning with the phrase “somewhat old-fashioned” – says they are an “institution providing care and protection to needy individuals (such as the infirm or destitute) and especially the mentally ill.”

In America, the Quakers (4) made the first space available for the mentally “disturbed” in 1752 at the Pennsylvania Hospital a.k.a. rooms in the basement with shackles on the walls. It was not until 1824 with the opening of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Lexington, KY, do we see the word asylum begin to creep into the mainstream. Before this time, there were wards within existing hospitals or stand alone “mental hospitals” were built. Over 500,000 were housed in an asylum or hospital by the mid-20th century but new treatments were leading to their downfall.

Today, few of the institutions exist and many have been torn down. Some have been repurposed as condos, office space or paranormal attractions.

electricity

Metrazol Therapy

Perhaps you have heard of shock therapy? Well, this is basically its mother.

Metrazol therapy involved injecting a patient with a stimulant that would induce seizures. These seizures would become so violent they would result in fractured bones or torn muscles. The scary part? the reason doctors stopped was due to the FDA withdrawing it from use in 1982. Electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy) which also causes the same physical reaction as a seizure, is still used in some cases today.

I am sure some are wondering why bother pointing out what we know does not work. Here is the issue: we’ve come a far way. We have a greater understanding about chemical imbalances and trauma, but there are still no quick fixes to mental illness. Maybe one day we will get there, and down the line someone will be writing about the laundry list of medications we used to put people through, but until then we will have to trudge through and learn from past mistakes.

Sources

Emily Ridener

A few words about me

There are quite a few mottos I like to sling around including but not limited to, “Life is short, eat the cupcake,” “What would Wednesday do?” and perhaps most importantly, “What’s so great about normal?” I don’t approve of people who put others down because society has taught us they are “less” and I choose to use my words to share truth, do no harm, and combat ignorance.