Originally in the later part of the Middle Ages, insane asylum were built to remove the mentally ill people from the streets. These unfortunate people were feared and seen with horror by most of the population of the time. The asylums developed 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 people which was a huge ordeal at that time. Much to the amazement of the skeptics this experiment on the animals was a success! A different attitude was now beginning to develop towards the treatment of the sick. The patience 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 sick were scary stories out of a terror movie. 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 patients head with a red hot iron to bring the animal to his senses. An English treatment of the earlier nineteenth century involved using a spinning device in which the afflicted person was positioned and then spun around at a high speed. Even as late as the nineteenth century another similar treatment device was used. This one swung the mentally ill around while he was in a harness. This treatment apparently 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 1900s still thought of mentally ill people living in asylums with fear, terror 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 staff. These elements made the hospitals unpleasant environments to live in, let alone to attempt and recover in.
Clifford Beers described his experiences in the insane asylums. He helped inform the public about the conditions 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 condition 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 education of mental health and mental illnesses. New drugs and treatments are always being discovered. Looking back in time, it sure is difficult to believe that the understanding of this disease was so limited and the accepted treatments were so terrible. But today, with our advanced medicine, technology and treatments we are able to help the mentally ill successfully recover in many cases and lead healthy, normal lives. Maybe some day science will uncover the answers as to what causes mental illness in the first place and find us a sure and permanent cure.
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