A History of Mental Health
Part IIThe brief history of remedies used to restore mental health was so long it had to be broken up into two parts. CLICK HERE FOR PART I, which includes such exotic therapies as "The Chinese Temple," otherwise known as an iron cage used to submerge patients underwater until they drowned. And gentle physicians such as Henry Cotton, who removed his patients’ teeth, tonsils, colon, gall bladder, appendix, fallopian tubes, uterus, ovaries, cervix, and seminal vesicles in order to eliminate their pesky insanity-causing bacteria. So far it’s hard to tell which was more insane, the patients or the methods used to treat them.
Now let’s continue where we left off, moving confidently in the direction of convulsion therapy. Another sure-fire cure.
For some reason, inducing seizures has long been regarded as an effective way to treat mental illness. It started in the 1930’s with the use of a seizure-inducing drug called metrazol, which triggered a seizure so explosive it could fracture bones, tear muscles, and loosen teeth. In one hospital, 43% of patients treated with metrazol suffered spinal fractures.
But check out these positive effects! As patients regained consciousness from the treatment, they would be dazed and disoriented. Vomiting was common. Many would beg doctors and nurses not to leave, calling for their mothers, wanting to be "hugged, kissed, and petted." Some would masturbate, some would become amorous toward the staff, and some would play with their own feces. All of this was seen as evidence of a desired regression to a childlike level. Sure looks like progress to me.
Whatever positive effects attained from seizures were thought to arise from a dulling of the brain. Which led to experiments in surgical techniques and anti-psychotic medications, the modern day approach to psychotherapy.
Most notable of the surgical techniques was the lobotomy, which is where a long icepick-like needle is inserted into the frontal lobes of the brain, by way of the nose, in order to scrape out the brain matter.
People who underwent lobotomies passed through various stages of change. In the first weeks following the operation, patients were often incontinent. They would lie in their beds like "wax dummies." To stir patients, physicians and nurses would need to tickle them, pound on their chests, or grab them by the neck and "playfully throttle" them. When finally prodded to move, patients could be expected to behave in unusual ways. For instance, patients may vomit in their soup bowls and keep eating before the nurse could take the defiled food away.
Lobotomy fell out of favor in the 1950’s, giving way to the advent of antipsychotic medications; the first of which, Thorazine, was introduced in 1954. First tested in the asylums of Paris, the new treatment was dubbed, "hibernation therapy," (ooh, cozy) as medicated patients became "completely immobile" and could be "moved about like puppets" with a "vacuity of expression" on their faces.
While the general public may think that "crazy" people are more likely to behave in violent ways, this was not true of mental patients prior to the introduction of antipsychotics. This violent behavior is, in large part, due to a side effect of certain antipsychotic compounds called akathisia.
A 1990 study determined that 50 percent of all fights on a psychiatric ward could be tied to akathisia. Another showed that 79 percent of mentally ill patients that had tried to kill themselves suffered from akathisia. And case reports have linked akathisia to several bizarre murders. In one case, a thirty-nine-year-old man – after a haloperidol injection made him feel like he was "falling apart, and that all of the bones in his body were broken" – bludgeoned his mother with a hammer, an act he later found incomprehensible.
A twenty-three-year-old man given haloperidol in an emergency room, escaped, tore off his clothes in a nearby park, and started attacking everyone he saw. Over the course of forty-five minutes, he tried to rape a woman walking in the park, broke into a house and beat an eighty-one-year-old woman to a pulp, fought with a policeman and escaped, and then stabbed two women before being subdued by eight cops. Rather than cure this poor man, they appeared to have turned him into a super villain.
Learning about how we’ve historically treated the mentally ill not only inspired the subject of my debut novel, it influenced its title, We Are Monsters.
In this book a brilliant, yet troubled psychiatrist is working to develop a cure for schizophrenia. At first, the drug he creates shows great promise in alleviating his patient’s symptoms. It appears to return schizophrenics to their former selves. But (as you may imagine) something goes wrong. Unforeseen side effects begin to emerge, forcing prior traumas to the surface, setting inner demons free. His medicine may help heal the schizophrenic mind, but it also expands it, and the monsters it releases could be more dangerous than the disease.
I have tremendous sympathy for the mentally ill, and am horrified by the way they have been, and continue to be treated. This book, in many ways, pays homage to all who have had to endure these inhumane treatments by monsters in human disguise.
Anyone interested in checking out We Are Monsters can order a copy here.
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