An uncertain path: psychiatry in the U.S. over the last 200 years.


For as long as humans have existed, madness has existed. How we have named and responded to madness changes constantly.

To be of sound mind is to have the ability to reason. The loss of reason - the loss of

the ability to think, understand, and engage with one's environment using judgment and logic - represents a departure from the social whole.

When an individual loses this link to their sense of social belonging, isolation often follows along with a decline in health. Humans are social creatures and we tend to thrive when we feel a sense of greater purpose, connection, and belonging. When someone behaves in ways that challenge their integration with the social order, disorder can set in.

The response to the mad among us has ranged from inclusion to exclusion, horror to awe, and embracing to rejecting over the centuries. Madness has been called insanity, unreason, and today is divided into nearly 300 diagnostic categories that specify its myriad nuances.

What can our collective past tell us about the future of mental illness? Going back a mere 200 years from today, let’s shed light on the question, “How did we end up where we are now?”


I spent an hour on the phone last week with a father who was desperate to help his 32-year old son who has been experiencing psychosis for over 12 months. Out of the blue, it seemed to this father, his son changed and became distant. That distance developed into isolation and then paranoia. Paranoia led to bizarre and frightening behaviors.

He was hospitalized 5 times in those 12 months, each time in handcuffs, and against his will. His father fears that the trauma he experienced each of these times has deepened the psychosis.

His son is over 18, so this father is not permitted access to clinical information from any of those 5 hospitalizations unless his son signs a release of information. Convincing someone who is paranoid to sign a release can be challenging and often does not engender a sense of trust or autonomy for that person. Systems in place to protect privacy often hinder recovery in situations like this.

This father desperately wants his eloquent, sensitive, and kind son back; he does not recognize the erratic, paranoid person in front of him. He feels powerless to help ease his son's suffering, knowing at the same time that if he calls for "help" it includes police officers and firefighters showing up, pounding on his son's door, and threatening to break the door down if he doesn't come out.

No matter how many times I hear this story, it never ceases to take my breath away. Most people do not know how deeply flawed our mental health system is until they have to experience it first-hand. There is the madness of the individual and then, on the other hand, there is the madness of the system.

As Oliver Sacks wrote in 2009, "...[the] mentally ill remain the least supported, the most disenfranchised, and the most excluded people in our society today."

Where is the kindness, compassion, and truly integrative care for these individuals? How did our mental health "system" get this way?

For the past 6 months, I have been researching that question. This blog post is my attempt at putting the pieces together.

- Steph


Let’s travel back to the late 1700s, give or take 25 years, in Western civilization.

This is the end of the Early Modern Period (a time period that includes the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery and Exploration) and the beginning of the Late Modern Period (a time that includes the Age of Reason, interchangeably referred to as The Enlightenment).

The Age of Reason followed after all the mysticism and religion of the Middle Ages. It represented a shift in the way humans living in Western cultures viewed self, society, government, science, and the pursuit of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, mental illness was often seen as a person being possessed by demons; it was during the Enlightenment that people began to wonder if there was a scientific reason behind madness. During the Enlightenment, reason and logic were valued over faith and superstition.

It was also around this time that the human population on Earth surpassed one billion people for the first time and densely populated cities were a new norm. Madness, or mental illness as we call it today, shows up in Western society in a variety of ways around the late 1700s to early 1800s.

During this time, people experiencing madness understood it (like today) on a spectrum of severity from mild to extreme. To find those with the more extreme experiences of madness, you would look in four main places:

  1. The private homes of families wealthy enough to care for someone in this state,

  2. The churches charged with the care of these individuals,

  3. The homeless poor living marginal lives on the streets, and

  4. The locked rooms in hospitals where these individuals were confined.


At the end of the 1700’s, a physician in France named Philippe Pinel and a Quaker asylum director in England named William Tuke became active around providing more humane care for those experiencing madness. Their ideas were a radical departure from the brutality, chains, and confinement of the 1600s and early to mid-1700s.

Pinel coined the term for this approach as moral treatment. In French, moral can also mean ethical. It was a paternalistic

model that it saw the mad very much like children and the asylum director as a parent figure. Pinel believed that insane people did not need to be chained or beaten, but instead treated with kindness, offered freedoms, and allowed access to recreation, conversation, and light manual labor. It was a vastly more ethical and humane approach to the care and treatment of madness than what was being practiced.

Moral treatment emphasized the importance of the environment as being the main therapeutic tool to help people participate in everyday life. Moral treatment included a rigid daily schedule, patients and staff dining together, work details assigned based on gender, and access to creative outlets such as arts and crafts. Moral treatment also valued the therapeutic use of labor and many asylums included woodshops, gardens, farms, and orchards for this very purpose.


The asylum as a specialized institution for the containment of the insane took its place in Western society during the 1800s and was largely a domain of the church, not a specialized medical field.

French philosopher, Michel Foucault, coined this time in history “The Great Confinement” because the response to the mad during the Age of Reason was to separate them from the rest of society.

Moral treatment was a product of the Enlightenment and its first proponent in the U.S. was Benjamin Rush, a physician and humanitarian. He believed that the insane should be treated in a bucolic asylum setting away from the busy pace of everyday life. Rush also employed medical practices such as blood-letting and he invented the “tranquilizer chair” as a restraint.

After Rush’s death, Dorothea Dix in 1841 pushed for asylums to be spacious, light, and have beautiful grounds. Because of her activism and efforts, there was much optimism around curing madness in the 1840s and 1850s. Dix personally helped to establish 32 mental hospitals in the U.S. People believed that a lack of restraints and providing a highly structured schedule in a peaceful setting would help facilitate a cure.

During the second half of the 1800s, pressures were placed on asylums to admit more and more patients and huge populations began to strain the system. It was initially only the mentally ill who were confined in asylums; at this time prostitutes, blasphemers, vagrants, and others deemed undesirable were also locked away against their will.

The original vision of moral treatment was of small facilities of no more than 30 patients. This vision degenerated into large facilities where little attention was given to the individual and the mere upkeep of the buildings and grounds was unsustainable.

The asylum model based on moral treatment fractured as populations grew to several thousand patients per asylum. Once large numbers of people were confined in asylums, the medical field took its first interest in “curing” madness. The asylum at this moment became the focus for decades of medical experiments meted out on largely unwilling and uninformed individuals.


Step forward to the mid-1800s and the work of German scientist, Wilhelm Griesinger. With Griesinger's work, the ties between the asylum and the university clinic were first made. Before Griesinger, the study of psychiatry was peripheral in the academic medical world. Basically, Griesinger launched the field of psychiatry as a credible area worthy of academic study.

Madness was newly seen as a disorder of the brain and nerves and basic research of brain anatomy moved to the fore. Researchers like Alois Alzheimer discovered abnormalities in the brain, such as plaques and tangles. The basic scientific work of Griesinger and Alzheimer made zero contribution to actual clinical care for people. On the contrary, this new model of German psychiatry was very pessimistic and saw madness as a chronic state of mental decline.

Another German researcher, Emil Kraepelin, dedicated his study to the observation people living in asylums. The outcome of his work was a classification system for madness that detailed two main categories:

  1. Dementia praecox (later labeled schizophrenia) and

  2. A residual category of manic-depressive psychosis.

Kraepelin’s work was the first time that madness was seen not as a unitary entity, but divided into different specific disease categories.

Kraepelin was a proponent of eugenics. Eugenics is, “...the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable a method of improving the human race” (Google dictionary). Eugenics was a practice not solely confined to the Nazi's of Germany. It was a popular concept in America as well; at one point its popularity led to the forced sterilization over 60,000 American citizens.

Kraepelin’s research did not mark any break from the pessimism of the burgeoning field of psychiatry and his as well as others’ research placed the cause of madness squarely in the biological brain.


With the clinical work of Sigmund Freud, between 1895 and 1905, the concept of madness having meaning returned to being an accepted concept. Freud was a psychoanalyst and popularized the idea that mental illness could be rooted out by talking.

Freud's work contrasted with the brain-based theories of the time and ended up having a massive impact on Western culture. Freud’s ideas resonated beyond psychology and into literature, advertising, cinema, and child-rearing. Especially after his death, his general ideas extended to all types of mental illness, mild to severe.

In America, specifically in the first 4 decades of the 1900’s, there was scorn held for Freud’s views among those in the psychiatric field and there was not total widespread adoption of his theories. The anatomists and the psychoanalysts vied for dominance.

In the US at that time, there was a drive towards the physical explanations for madness, divorced from the meaning-making and symbolism of psychoanalysis. A tension between these two perspectives was maintained for decades.


It was in the first half of the 1900s in America that “...therapeutic experimentation on the vulnerable bodies of those certified mad” (Andrew Scull) were methodically carried out.

The asylum was still the central housing apparatus for the most severely ill and their inmates had few rights and no ability to refuse treatment or experimentation. It was during this time that drugs, electricity, malarial mosquitoes to induce fever, partial drowning, spinning chairs, organ removal, insulin coma, 5-point restraints, sensory deprivation, and noxious gas were all used.

The idea continually being tested was that madness could be shocked or cut out of the body somehow.


In the 1930s a Portuguese scientist, Antonio Moniz, began to operate on (really, just damage) the brains of the mad.

He developed the invasive prefrontal lobotomy, a procedure that involves boring a hole in the skull and using the equivalent of a butter knife to mess with the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Two George Washington University medical school doctors, Walter Freeman and James Watts, studied with Moniz and brought the prefrontal lobotomy to the US. The procedure was so quickly popularized because once done, it extinguished psychosis. Their method involved boring into the brain through the eye socket with an ice-pick-like device and using a mallet to damage the brain.

The procedure was done on patients as young as 4 years old and was carried out regularly at American asylums. For all the patients who fell victim to this horrific procedure, capacity for empathy, forethought, and impulse-control vanished and individual personality was often forever altered.

The idea that mental illness took root within the physical body was further explored when soldiers, returning from World War II, were unable to cope with the stressors of reintegrating to civilian life. This was called shell-shock (later called PTSD). The idea that explosions had caused shell shock by rattling the brain added support to the concept that madness had a biological root cause.


In 1928, penicillin was discovered. Although it took a decade to be fully implemented in treating infections, the excitement of the discovery bled into other areas of science.