The author of The Back Building, Julie Dewey, wrote this excellent guest post about the different treatments used throughout history to treat people who suffered from depression and insanity. Very interesting post!!
I wrote the book, The Back Building, because I was intrigued by the diagnosis and treatment of mentally ill patients in the 1800’s as well as the early 1900’s. I was astounded to learn that a person could be diagnosed as being insane just because they were homeless, jobless, elderly, or opinionated. Often a person who was seen as a blight on their community was sent away to an alms house, jail, hospital, or asylum for the insane. Of course, some people were legitimately unbalanced, but for my purposes anyone declared as being mentally ill suffered the same treatment.
Once at a given facility, the patient was often mistreated and dehumanized. Patients were chained to bed rails and jail cells, they were stripped of their clothing and dignity. Often they were starved and beaten, all in an attempt to rid them of the devil.
During the early 1800’s some medical doctors were experimenting with procedures to “cure” their patients. Lobotomies were first performed with saws but later ice picks and hammers became the preferred tools. Picks were jammed directly into a person’s eye sockets where brain matter was scrambled and removed in an effort to relieve a person from their illness. Crass tools with scoops and sharp edges come to mind, as well as catatonic patients.
Insulin therapy was additionally studied and used on patients in an effort to calm them. Patients were overdosed with insulin and put into a coma, their brains were starved and blood sugar levels plummeted.
Trepanation was yet another barbaric form of treatment used to “cure” patients of their illness. Holeswere drilled directly into their skulls in patterns in order to allow the demon to escape.
Hydrotherapy was another, less invasive, yet still uncomfortable treatment used to calm mentally ill patients. Patients were submerged in a tub of water, sometimes ice cold, for hours on end and then were wrapped in sheets andmummified. Or they were blasted with sharp shards of water from high impact hoses in an attempt to heal them.
ECT is still used today as a treatment for depression, schizophrenia, and other ailments when medications are not effective. However, the history of ECT is nothing short of barbaric and hazardous. Patients were often strapped down to beds, while electrodes were attached to their scalps. They were not given pain medication, relaxants, or anesthesia and many had heart attacks on the table, or died during the procedure.
I realize I paint a dramatic, God awful picture of humanity as I describe the methods employed over time to alleviate and control mental illness. Unfortunately, my research indicates all of these treatments were widely and regularly used. What’s more startling is the doctors truly believed they were useful and beneficial.
Mental illness was simply not understood and accepted then as it is today. Sure, we still have stigma’s, and there is no doubt that we struggle as a society to understand and conceptualize what it means to be “normal”. However, centuries of research, in addition to patient’s rights, and a wider understanding of the mind has led us to far more practical and humane treatments for patients.
The Back Building does not delve into all of these treatments, but it does compare and contrast some of the methods used to treat patients over the course of four generations. I believe, and if you read my book you will see why, that it is love, faith, and understanding that have the greatest impact on anyone who suffers with a mental illness.