In my new novel, The Tin Box, William finds a series of letters written in secret by a man who was locked up in a mental hospital in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the treatment of mental illness has a long and very painful history.
I think I first became interested in the topic when I was in graduate school and we watched a documentary called Titticut Follies. The film was released in 1967, and it shows the inside of a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane. It was difficult to watch when I first saw it. I recently watched it again, and it was still very painful.
Until recently, people in the U.S. could be fairly easily hospitalized for a wide range of “conditions”–including homosexuality (more on that next week). And until modern pharmaceuticals were available, treatments were barbaric. All of the things mentioned in The Tin Box were really used: insulin shock therapy, electroshock, lobotomy. I think these procedures were born more out of desperation than cruelty, but the results were often terrible. In the 1940s and 1950s, tens of thousands of people were lobotomized in the US alone.
By the 1950s, the invention of new drugs helped pave the way for more humane and effective treatments, as well as less need to institutionalize people. However, the drugs created problems of their own. They are often overused or misused, and patients often don’t receive the outpatient care they need. Among other things, this means that quite a few mentally ill people end up in the prison system, which is poorly equipped to deal with them. Over 25% of inmates in US prisons suffer from a mental illness.
The Tin Box has a hopeful message for the future, but I think it’s important to remember where we’ve been and acknowledge where we are.
Some resources for more information:
Next week: Homosexuality as mental illness