Is the Past — Prologue?

I gave two presentations last week in Saint Louis at what used to be called the Saint Louis Insane Asylum. It is a magnificent structure with an iron-domed cupola.
Now called the St. Louis State Hospital, the structure was constructed during the Civil War era on one of the highest points in the city. You can read about it by visiting here.
My gracious host, Thom Pancella, gave me a tour of the building, which began in the basement where he showed me holes in the thick walls where chains were once attached. Persons with mental illness were kept chained in small cells with only hay on the concrete floor.
There was an exhibit on the main level that showed photographs of patients who had been given a Lobotomy. The pictures had been taken by the doctor who had performed the “operations” and were supposed to calm any fears that a patient or their loved ones might have when it came to having a sharp instrument shoved into the brain to severe the prefrontal cortex. If you want to read more about Lobotomy you can visit here.
One of the photos on display showed a woman in her thirties whose husband had complained because she didn’t do housework and seem lifeless. After the operation, she had become obedient and gone about her chores without complaint. The first photo showed a woman frowning. In the second, she was smiling.
The person who had put the exhibit together pointed out that there was no mention by the doctor of how several hundred of his patients had either died during their operations or had been left paralyzed and abandoned in back wards of the hospital.
If you read about the Lobotomy, you will learn that the operation was considered a “mainstream medical” procedure after it was introduced in 1935. Other treatments that were common before the introduction of anti-psychotic drugs — such as insulin shock and hot/cold baths — also were administered at the hospital.
Seventy years later we now realize that the lobotomy was barbaric and we wonder how doctors and caregivers could have been so cruel as to keep ill persons chained in basements and tortured with ineffective “cures.”
After touring the hospital, I had two thoughts. The first was  how little we still know about the brain despite major scientific advances in understanding other parts of our bodies.  The second was a question: What will future generations think of us in seventy years ?
What will they think when they read about homeless persons with mental illness left to die on our streets?
What will they think when they read that 16 percent of persons in jails and prisons have a serious mental illness?
How will they judge us when they read that the largest public mental facility in the U.S. in 2010 was not a hospital or treatment facility, but the Los Angeles County Jail?
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Maria

    I predict the mental health care system will see many improvements within the next ten years.

    This change will come about once attorneys realize they can easily win malpractice suits against psychiatrists who failed to recognize and treat the underlying causes of mental illness. “Pill pushers” will soon have to considers using a source called Medline, along with their medical skills to investigate “What Makes Us Mad”.

    http://www.investigatingmentalillness.blogspot….

  • Maria

    I predict the mental health care system will see many improvements within the next ten years.

    This change will come about once attorneys realize they can easily win malpractice suits against psychiatrists who failed to recognize and treat the underlying causes of mental illness. “Pill pushers” will soon have to considers using a source called Medline, along with their medical skills to investigate “What Makes Us Mad”.

    http://www.investigatingmentalillness.blogspot….