The care given to mental illness has come a long way since the 1800's – 1900's and 2000's. I have listened to so many stories of the older clients as they share what used to happen to them when they were admitted against their will or even when they needed to receive treatment – for what treatment was back then. In the 1800s, anything from alcoholism to masturbation to postpartum depression could land a person in a mental hospital. The hospitals also were filled with persons who suffered from old-age senility, cerebral arteriosclerosis, brain tumors and dementia, as well as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In today's world we have come a long way in how people are diagnosed and cared for – thank goodness.
Most large mental hospitals were a small community of their very own. They had live stock, chickens, gardens for food supply, and the patients worked on the grounds as part of their treatment or free hands. There were recreational opportunities for the patients, including croquet, billiards, swimming, mini golf, basketball, bowling, they believed in work therapy and rewarded patients for their work with social events and money. They also held dances for the patients where the employees would dance with the patients or they would dance with each other.
Many mental health staff lived at the hospitals making a whopping $40 a month. They lived in the dorms and had shared bathrooms. Even married couples had very stern rules they lived by working in these hospitals.
Patients were segregated by sex. Active and disturbed patients were kept in one ward, where they were sometimes restrained in straitjackets and leather hand and leg cuffs. Through the years, treatments for mental illness, some of them now regarded as barbaric, were tried on patients. Even when I began in mental illness we still used the seclusion rooms for many hours at a time. With a census of over 300 – I still did not see the things that happened before my time – but enough.
I have read many articles about the different approaches they took for patient treatment – if that is what you want to call it. Such as, hydrotherapy tubs indicate that mental patients were submerged for hours in long baths, sometimes in hot or cold water, a treatment that was popular in the late 1800s. It might involve applying ice caps on their heads or bandages wrapped around their eyes and ears to shut out other sensations. They also sprayed them with water hoses.
In the 1940s and 1950s, mental hospitals around the country began using electroshock therapy to dull the intellects of the patients and quiet the wards of mental hospitals. Doctors also began using experimental prefrontal lobotomies, the surgical removal of a frontal lobe of the brain, to try to cure mental illness. It basically made the person a blank zombie.
There was also sewing room where women worked all day making clothes, repairing clothes, making pillows and many things for the inmates and hospital staff. Everything was done to earn privileges.
When I began working in mental health they also had a craft area where they would make items to sell around the holidays – beautiful nativity scenes for less than $18. The one I have sells for over $100 in a store. I love sitting it out every year and enjoying where it came from.
Between 1955 and 1957, the hospitals began using dramatic new drugs, including Thorazine, to treat the mentally ill. The new beginning of adding medication to treat the illness and the mental health began to change. The patient rights movement began not long behind that – where patients could no longer be forced to work without paying them. To one extent it was a good movement – to the other the patients just sat on the hall in a chair or wanted to sleep all day because they could not go to work. Even today – you cannot make patients go to any of their activities even if it makes them feel better to get out and mix with other people.
For as primitive as the conditions may sound, the hospital staff did care about the patients and this feeling of compassion and caring continues even today. The staff were more like family than co-workers. The patients looked at the staff as family and for some of them – they were all they had. Each year around the holidays many of the retired staff come back and visit. As bad as some of the treatments were – it was a place hard to explain how the bond was and is with the people who work under that enviroment.
After thinking about many people who had lived and worked there – I took a long walk down history lane. It was a fall day just cool enough for a jacket but the sun warmed you as you walked. It was a lane that had held people walking by foot – wagons pulled by horses and mules, antiques cars and trucks – it was a path that lead to the grave yard of who really knows the amount of people who are buried there. The hospital at one time had a TB ward – where most if not all the patients died from TB. With the total census in the building of being around 3000 patients there were lots of deaths. Since I am not a historian but have read the documents that tell the stories of the mass graves where more than one persons were stacked in a grave and buried. Very few of the patients were even given a head stone or a marker.
I decided to go visit the unknown. The path that lead to the open field was beautiful. It was quite a bit farther than I had remembered when I had walked it before. At the end of the wooded lane it opened to the field that was green grass with one tree that stood at the top of the hill. As I headed in that direction I could feel a change in the energy of the walk. I knew I was not alone.
Once I arrived in front of the big oak tree the stones that were left behind to mark the lives of the mentally ill are now stacked against the tree. Not marking a place where they laid but leaning sadly on the big oak tree. You could barely read Hayes 1908. The others were so dim you could on see a number or two. A bench stood alone by the tree looking over the freshly mowed field – marking a family name with dates – just a thinking spot. How sad, as I stood there for so many lives to be buried and no mark of whom they were – or even a record kept for a genealogy to be found. The energy I felt standing there over-looking the grounds was not hostile but curious. Maybe the souls that were left behind were relieved that someone came to visit.
I walked back down the path and turned to look back, so much history laid under that dirt. The pain for that generation is over. Thank goodness mental health has come to a cross roads where they treat them like people and not experiments or animals tied to a bed post. What I had forgot on that day was it was October 31st – Halloween.
Angela Brooks is the author of her best seller "The Nurses Voice", and is a contributor to the nursing magazines "Scrubs Magazine" and "NurseTogether.com". She is also a marketing leader for growing Health Company whose mission is to inspire individuals to lives of wellness, purpose, and abundance!
She is the founder of angelabrook.com, a company dedicated to helping empower nurses who works in the mental health field. Not just for nurses but those that nurse others in life. She is the nurses voice, the voice for those unheard.
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