Mental Illness and the Early Insane Asylums – A Shameful Past

Originally in the later part of the Middle Ages, insane asylums were built to remove the mentally ill people from the streets. These unfortunate people were feared and viewed with horror by most of the population of the time. The asylums created were really prisons and not centers for treatment. The inmates were chained and the rooms were dark and filthy dungeons. The “patients” were treated like animals, not humans.

Later on in history, in Paris 1792 an experiment was conducted. The chains were removed from the inmates which was a big deal at that time. Much to the amazement of the skeptics this experiment on the “animals” was a success! A different attitude was now starting to emerge towards the treatment of the mentally ill. The inmates were removed from their filthy dungeons and given clean, sunny rooms. They were treated with kindness and not like wild animals by the staff. The result was that many ill folks who were considered hopelessly crazy recovered and were even able to leave the asylum!

But the treatments used to try and cure the mentally ill were horror stories out of a horror flick. These “treatments” were actually forms of torture that were believed to help bring the patient back to reality. One early treatment was the branding of a patient’s head with a red hot iron to “bring the animal to his senses”. An English treatment of the earlier nineteenth century involved using a rotating device in which the afflicted person was placed and then whirled around at a high speed. Even as late as the nineteenth century another similar “treatment” device was used. This one swung the mentally ill person around while he was in a harness. This treatment supposedly “calmed the nerves”.

Then in 1904 there was a breakthrough in mental illness science. Syphilis spirochete was discovered and shown that there could be a physical cause for mental illness. Then, Sigmund Freud and his followers came along and suggested that environmental factors could be the cause of mental disorders. But it seems that even with these new scientific breakthroughs and different ways of viewing mental illness, the general population of the early 1900’s still thought of mentally ill people living in asylums with fear, horror and even hatred. There still was no real understanding of this terrible illness.

But in 1908 an amazing thing happened. A mentally ill person named Clifford Beers recovered from his mental illness. He published a book called “A Mind That Found Itself”. He was diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis and was institutionalized for three years. The earlier forms of torture, branding, “spinning” and others were abandoned at this time only to be replaced by overcrowded hospitals, poor food, strait jackets and sadistic and uncaring attendants. These elements made the “hospitals” unpleasant places to live in, let alone to try and recover in.

Clifford Beers described his experiences in the insane asylums. He helped educate the public about the principles of mental health. His single-handed efforts to educate the public about mental illness, along with using his book helped to make the public aware of the disease and to help understand it. Soon the National Committee for Mental Hygiene was organized. Then in 1950 the committee joined with two other groups and formed the National Association for Mental Health.

Of course nowadays we have a much better understanding of mental health and mental illnesses. New drugs and treatments are always being discovered. Looking back in time, it sure is hard to believe that the understanding of this illness was so limited and the accepted treatments were so barbaric. But today, with our advanced drugs, technology and treatments we are able to help the mentally ill successfully recover in many cases and lead healthy, normal lives. Maybe one day science will discover the answers as to what causes mental illness in the first place and find us a sure and permanent cure.