May is Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM).
MHAM was started in 1949 by the Mental Health America (MHA) organization (then known as the National Association for Mental Health). Its purpose is to break the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and working toward building a safe environment to have healthy discussions regarding them.
The MHA was founded by Clifford Beers in 1909. Nine years before founding the MHA, Beers himself was confined in a private mental institution for having depression and paranoia. In the facility, Beers was mistreated, being physically and mentally abused by the staff.
It was because of this negative experience that Beers decided to raise awareness to both: abuse in mental health facilities as well as the stigma surrounding just mental health in general. His experiences at the institution were recounted on his critically acclaimed book “The Mind That Found Itself.” In the book, Beers does point out that there are institutions that genuinely want to help.
“I think abuse in psychiatric institutions happened frequently then and happens today still.” Kendall Gomez (freshman, Spanish/international studies) said. “The patients are generally in a very vulnerable condition, and people may take advantage of that. However, it can also be very positive if the person is in the right hands”
The history behind abuse and mistreatment in mental health institutions dates back to centuries ago. The oldest record of these facilities is from the mid-1700s, when asylums were popularized. Those asylums were often cruel and beyond the point of inhumanity.
As time went by, the asylums became a punitive place rather than a facility to help those who need it. By the 1800s, many people hospitalized did not have any justifiable reason to be kept away from society and were just sent there for “wrongdoings” or for merely being different.
Most of this began to change in 1887, when Nellie Bly, a journalist for The New York World, went undercover to the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum, where she spent 10 days. In her series of articles, which later were published in a book, Bly described the cruel treatment given to her in the asylum as well as how negligent the doctors exanimating her were.
In order to be interned, all that Bly had to do was cry a bit and tell people at a boardinghouse that she was scared of them because they looked crazy. Within a day, she was arrested, examined and was deemed as “definitely insane.” In her articles, Bly retells how the doctor involved was more busy flirting with the nurse than actually performing any sort of serious examination before declaring her “crazy.”
Once interned, Bly acted as she normally would. Despite that, hospital staff seemed unaware that she was no longer ”insane” and instead began to report her ordinary actions, such as accidentally dropping something, as symptoms of her illness. Even her pleas to be released were interpreted as further signs of mental illness. Bly also spent time talking to other patients, whom she was convinced were just as sane as she was.
“For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me,” Bly wrote recounting what an unnamed patient told her. “Then they tied my hands and feet, and throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water.
“They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”
After the 10 days, The New York World secured Bly’s release, and the article was published. Her article led to a governmental investigation and sparked a public movement to improve the conditions. While conditions did improve, it was far from becoming good. It was the beginning of the “scientific testing era.”
During this era, doctors would perform experiments on patients and try to “cure” them. At the time, mental illnesses were still treated as physical illnesses, and many thought it could be cured and/or transmitted.
One notorious case was the one of Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg. Inspired by the discovery that high fever stopped the symptoms of syphilis, Dr. Wagner-Jauregg experimented injecting schizophrenia patients with malaria-infected blood. He, however, was not repudiated by the medical community for this inhumane experiment. Instead, he won the 1927 Nobel Prize in Medicine, despite the fact that it did not work.
As the 20th century progressed, so did the “scientific” techniques to experiment on patients.
During that time, German neurologist Dr. Manfred Sakel introduced insulin shock therapy to the American market. By injecting high levels of insulin into patients, doctors would cause convulsions and provoke a coma. After several hours, the living dead would be revived from the coma, and thought cured of their madness.
“By 1941, according to a U.S. Public Health survey, 72 percent of the country’s 305 reporting public and private asylums were using insulin coma therapy,” Mary de Young, author of “Madness: An American History of Mental Illness and Its Treatment,” said. “[Shock therapy was used] not only for schizophrenia, but also for other types of madness,” Young added.
Around the same time, doctors in Europe performed the first lobotomies. The practice was brought to the U.S. by Dr. Walter Freeman in 1945. The practice consists of damaging neural connections in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain thought to cause mental illness.
“The behaviors [doctors] were trying to fix, they thought, were set down in neurological connections,” Barron Lerner, a medical historian and professor at New York University Langone Medical Center, said in an interview to Live Science. “The idea was, if you could damage those connections, you could stop the bad behaviors.”
Lobotomies did not just stop bad behaviors. It stopped the brain in general, many times stripping people of their personalities, memories and cognitive ability. Freeman himself admitted this, claiming that every patient “probably loses something by this operation.”
Lobotomies are still legal in the U.S. to this day, although rarely, as not that many people are checked-in into mental health facilities. Normally, people are kept in conservatorship.
A conservatorship is an arrangement where someone acts as another person’s financial and/or mental overseer. Generally, the conservator is a professional, although it could also be a family member—which is when it can become abusive.
In some cases, people might be put under conservatorship out of interest of the conservators. Recently, Britney Spears and the Free Britney Movement have been stealing the public spotlight, as the singer moved on a motion to remove her father from being her conservator.
As the story garnered more and more attention, many started questioning if keeping her in a conservatorship was still necessary. While most of her family claims she is doing just fine and support her emancipation, her father (who gains thousands a month for being her conservator) claims is still necessary.
“Obviously, there was a need for it in the beginning,” Bryan Spears, Britney’s brother, said. “Now they’ve made some changes, and all we can do is hope for the best. She’s always wanted to get out of it. [Having] someone coming in with an attitude [and] having someone constantly [telling] you to do something has got to be frustrating.”
Whether it was through forcing people into asylums in the 1800s or keeping them in conservatorship in 2020s, one thing remains true: society’s stigma surrounding mental illnesses does more harm than good.