Thursday, September 18, 2008
Quest for a Cure provides a short introduction to the history of sanitariums and mental health institutions in America. The book doesn't reference the chronology of medicine in Europe, but America was founded about the time that psychology was designated as its own field, separate from philosophy and biology. Zwelling documents the care of patients in America during the time of the Revolution through the mid-1800's. This hospital was intended to focus on curing mental illness; it was to provide short-term care for patients who would then return home rather than be institutionalized for life. Virginia doctors became more insistent on minimal physical restraints. They encouraged patients to interact with staff and each other, believing isolation to worsen disease, or at least not to cure it as other doctors believed. They accepted slaves as patients. In Virginia, the hospital, rather than the church, was sought as a cure for mental illness.
After the Civil War, the mission of the hospital changed. For the first time, more women than men were diagnosed mentally ill. More importantly, mental health became an issue of fitness, as in survival of the fittest. Care focused on chronic cases, and the number of patients with acute illnesses declined. The hospital was again racially segregated. By 1884, the number of patients had dramatically increased, and the hospital was officially a long-term home rather than a cure.
I was surprised by how modern the apparent views of the Virginia psychologists were.
Even mild mental illness makes people uneasy today. I can understand how, before the discovery of bioelectricity, neurons, random sampling for experimentation, or mood stabilizing medication, how doctors would be flummoxed with how to deal with the mentally ill.
The history of psychology, specifically the history of the treatment of the mentally ill, is a dark and violent story. I've read pieces of it, and it has all seemed consistently dark. This was a wonderful ray of light.