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Into the Asylum
Diseases of the mind have always held a special place in the dark regions of our imagination. In this slideshow, we explore the history of how the lunatic asylum of ancient times became the psychiatric hospital of today, including how patients were treated before the advent of modern medicine. And though the treatment of patients who suffer from mental disorders has evolved considerably over the centuries, some of the stigma these people endure is very much the same.
The First Facilities
The first mental asylum can be traced back as early as the 5th century in the Middle East. Prior to that, families who had members suffering from mental health disorders just kept their ill relatives at home. Even after the advent of the mental asylum, it really wasn't until the 18th and 19th centuries that urbanization allowed for greater access to these facilities. A psychiatric hospital in Aleppo, Syria, that operated from the 14th century into the 20th century appears in this photo.
A Prison, Not a Hospital
Most sufferers of mental disorders throughout history have not been treated as patients, but rather as prisoners. This illustration depicts female mental patients chained up at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, France. Although the facility has since evolved into one of the largest hospital's in Europe, during the 18th century, the period this painting depicts, patient care wasn't high on the list of priorities for officials working at this facility.
Made in America
Psychiatric institutions first appeared in the United States during the Colonial era as a result of urbanization, according to the website of the U.S. Surgeon General. In this photo, Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum, built in New York at the beginning of the 19th century, was the first municipal mental hospital in the United States, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.
A Jolt to the System
As mental health asylums gradually transformed into institutions that went from confining those with mental health disorders to treating them, psychiatrists began experimenting with different therapies for treating a range of diseases. Although drugs treating depression, anxiety, psychosis, or any number of different symptoms of a larger disorder are readily available today, early patients of the new psychological revolution did not have quite the range of options available to them. In this photo, a medical team preps a patient for electroconvulsive treatment, better known as shock therapy. Although the practice continues to this day in hospitals around the globe, its efficacy as a treatment for psychological disorders has long been questioned by the medical community.
A Surgical Solution?
The lobotomy is among one of the most brutal and infamous treatments for mental health conditions. The process involves a surgeon intentionally causing trauma to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with behavior and personality among other functions. Ever since its invention in 1935, the treatment has sparked controversy over its effectiveness and sheer brutality. Many patients who underwent this procedure were left permanently incapacitated; some even died. In this photo taken in 1961, a prison official preps a convict to undergo a lobotomy.
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Hypnotism was another popular early form of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. Hypnotism predated psychological study, but was first described in clinical terms in the 19th century. It was employed as a diagnostic and treatment tool by some of the earliest pioneers of the field of psychology, including Sigmund Freud, who eventually fell out of favor with the practice. Even today, hypnotism is promoted with the promise of helping patients with sleep disorders, nicotine addiction, depression, and a whole range of diseases and conditions.
Not all treatments are as aggressive as electroconvulsive therapy. In this photo, a painting, the product of a patient's therapy, provides medical professionals with an insight into the patient's condition. Art therapy could also be a window through which patients along with their therapists can examine past traumas or challenges that they wouldn't have been able to approach otherwise.
An Abandoned Institution
As patient care became a higher priority for mental health professionals as opposed to simply corralling patients into a facility to segregate them from society, what were once called lunatic asylums gave way to psychiatric hospitals. An abandoned asylum, such as the one photographed here known as Northern State Hospital for the Insane, still conveys an eerie quality as though still haunted by the patients who used to be kept there.
A Modern Asylum
Not all more modern facilities treat their patients with quality care and a little empathy. In 1989 and 1990, photographer Claudio Edinger traveled to Juqueri Mental Hospital in Sao Paolo State, Brazil, where his visited his grandmother, a once lively woman who had been transformed by Alzheimer's Disease. What Edinger witnessed at the facility was a "chaotic environment" with appalling conditions -- a place where many patients walked around naked in their own filth. Worse, Juqueri is the largest psychiatric facility in Latin America.
A woman in Germany claims she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed.
A news story explains, “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. In one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.”
Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes’, before finding the till empty.”
There’s a certain creepy Gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction.
Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book “Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory,” Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.”
In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the “Satanic Panic” scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories.
Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like.
In their book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology,” psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77 percent of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’… But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.”
Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis — such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations — is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy.
There is some evidence that hypnosis might be useful in addressing some behavior-related medical issues such as quitting smoking or weight loss. There may be a placebo-like effect in that a person who is highly motivated to change their habits might get a boost from believing that hypnosis is helping them. However the evidence is weak because people who seek out hypnosis for help with their problems are by definition highly motivated, and any added success rate may be due to that motivation, with or without the benefit of hypnosis.
It’s not clear why a person would believe or assume that he or she had been put into a hypnotic trance when they had not. Such a belief may be due to memory loss or confusion, but there’s no reason to fear hypnotist bandits.