Monday, September 10, 2012

Scary Asylum Practices

My oldest sister was a runaway as a teen and my parents caught her smoking pot. They didn't know what to do with her and in 1970, the option for them was to put her away in a mental hospital where the people working there assured them that she needed to remain. Over the years there, my sister received so much electroshock therapy that she lost all memory of her childhood or any experiences she ever had with us. She was a shell of the person I knew when she came out and it took us decades to rediscover each other and forge a new relationship. It was archaic to say the least, and that was in 1970!

Imagine the way mental patients were treated in the past. There was a great deal of shame in having a mentally ill person in a family.  They were often carted off to places that then treated them as spiritually deficient and sometimes even evilly possessed beings. Understaffed, not monitored, and run by greedy people, they were often starved, frozen, tied down, locked in cages, and treated by barbaric means.  Imagine being in your most fragile emotional and mental state and also being physically harmed!

Around the mid-1700s, Dr. Boerhaave invented the “gyrating chair.” This became a popular tool in Europe and the US. This instrument was intended to shake up the blood and tissues of the body to restore equilibrium, but instead resulted in rendering the patient unconscious without any recorded successes.

Walter Freeman, an American physician, with his colleague James Watts, performed his first lobotomy operation (cutting connects to the prefrontal cortex of the brain) in 1936.  With good results at calming patients, he went on to perform thousands more.  He is also famous for inventing what is called ice pick lobotomy.  Impatient with the difficult surgical methods pioneered by Moniz, he found he could insert an ice pick above each eye of a patient with only local anesthetic, drive it through the thin bone with a light tap of a mallet, swish the pick back and forth like a windshield wiper and -- voilĂ  -- a formerly difficult patient is now passive.

Freeman recommended the procedure for everything from psychosis to depression to neurosis to criminality.  He developed what others called assembly line lobotomies, going from one patient to the next with his gold-plated ice pick, even having his assistants time him to see if he could break lobotomy speed records.  It is said that even some seasoned surgeons fainted at the site.  Even Watts thought he had gone too far.

Between 1939 and 1951, over 18,000 lobotomies were performed in the US, and many more in other countries.  It was often used on convicts, and in Japan it was recommended for use on “difficult” children.  There are still western countries that permit the use of the lobotomy, although its use has decreased dramatically worldwide.  Curiously, the old USSR banned it back in 1950 on moral grounds!

In the 1950s, people began getting upset about the prevalence of lobotomies.  Protests began, and serious research supported the protesters.  The general statistics showed roughly a third of lobotomy patients improved, a third stayed the same, and the last third actually got worse!

If you want to see one of my favorite documentaries ever and that is absolutely creepy-rama, check out "Cropsey," about two locals in NY who check out an old abandoned mental facility that was closed down after extreme abuse was reported. An ex-worker from the place was later found to kill children in the area with disabilities.

Now, for a totally creepy film about mental health abuses, try "The House On Haunted Hill," 1999 version.

Or, try this one about escaped mental patients going after their new psychiatrist (Alone in the Dark) -


  1. They had a segment on lobotomies on an episode of Dark Matters recently. Creepy.



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