Legacy of Abuse

Psychiatry likes to present itself as a helping profession, but even a cursory look at its history suggests otherwise.  Here are some of the “treatments” that this pseudo-science has promoted for its pseudo-illnesses.


It is estimated that 65,000 people were sterilized in America under various eugenic statutes.  This practice, which was used between the 1920’s and 1970’s, was aimed at “undesirables” which included the so-called mentally ill.


This involved suspending the client in a cold bath for hours and even days at a time.  It was widely practiced in the early decades of the twentieth century.


These “treatments” were also used in the early decades of the 20th century.  The theory was that insanity was caused by pelvic irritation which was “cured” by these methods.  Robert Whitaker (Mad in America) reports that Clitoridectomy “did not disappear altogether from American asylums until at least 1950.”


Removal of teeth, colon, appendix, fallopian tubes, cervix, and other parts were all used as “treatments” for the hapless residents of American asylums.


Extract of sheep thyroid was popular.


This involved putting patients into a deep drug-induced coma and leaving them in this state for days on end.  Mortality rates of 6% were reported.


Fevers were induced by hot baths, electric heaters, and even deliberate infection with malaria.


Patients were refrigerated for two or three days at a time at temperatures as low as 20° F below normal body temperature.


Between 1900 and 1950 discharge rates from the asylums were extremely low, reflecting a belief that containment was the “treatment” of choice.  Conditions were often brutal and degrading.


Administration of insulin to a non-diabetic person results in a reduction in blood glucose. If enough insulin is given, the individual goes into a coma.  During the 1930’s and 1940’s, psychiatrists in Europe and America promoted the preposterous idea that coma induction of this sort, when repeated often enough, was an effective “treatment” for residents of the asylums.  The procedure caused severe and permanent brain damage.  This “treatment” was common even up to the early 1950’s, even though the apparent efficacy of the “treatment” was nothing more than the docile child-like state that resulted from the extensive brain damage.


This “treatment” consisted of injecting the patient with Metrazol (a synthetic camphor).  Metrazol is toxic, and the injection produced an epileptic-like seizure.  The effect on the patient was extremely unpleasant and terrifying.  Patients were usually exposed to multiple “treatments,” resulting in permanent brain damage.


Here electric shock was used to induce the brain-damaging seizure.  Psychiatrists hailed this “treatment” as a great therapeutic breakthrough, even though it was widely recognized that the “therapeutic” agent was the destruction of brain cells in the cerebral cortex, with consequent loss of higher cognitive functioning.  This “treatment’ was used extensively even in recent times.  In 1955 Lauretta Bender, a renowned psychiatrist, reported that she had administered a twenty-shock “treatment” program to a two-year-old infant!


This involved drilling holes in the side of the head, inserting a scalpel, and then moving the scalpel up and down, severing the front part of the brain from the rest.


All of the practices outlined above were barbaric, and most involved permanent damage to the victim.  Yet psychiatry embraced them whole-heartedly.  The misgivings of objectors were treated with cavalier dismissal.

It is particularly interesting that each of these “treatments” was backed up by spurious and simplistic theories, and these theories were promoted as vigorously as the brain illness nonsense of today.

The widespread and destructive “treatment” of ordinary problems of living with dangerous drugs, and the wanton disregard of the collateral damage, is just the latest page in psychiatry’s legacy of shame and abuse.  The pushing of drugs is not as overtly barbaric as the “treatments” of former years, but as the number of people involved is so much higher today, the total damage inflicted is probably greater.

Many authors have written extensively on this facet of psychiatry’s history – but Robert Whitaker’s treatment of this subject in Mad in America is especially worth reading.


  • Hi Phil
    You could usefully analyse the almost-overnight conversion of homosexuality to a non-illness c.1974 (this is well within my lifetime).
    Then you would be right up against the fallacy of: “It’s an illness because we say so; it’s not an illness because we say so”

  • Nanu,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s always nice to hear from you. The great homosexuality “cure” is indeed one of the most ludicrous episodes in the annals of modern psychiatry – but also, as you point out, one of the most revealing.

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve written a post on the subject.

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