“The understanding of mental illness as biologically determined is recent, but a biological approach to the issue has existed for millennia.
“In the first century AD, the Romans treated their mad by shocking them with live eels, drugging them with opium, and boring holes in their skulls – a practice known as ‘trepanning’ and described by historian Catharine Arnold as a ‘primitive form of neurosurgery’ dating back to Neolithic times. The practice was also popular in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Europe in the Middle Ages.
“As insanity was thought to be caused by evil spirits, trepanning provided them with a means of escape. In later centuries, these spirits were simply beaten out of the insane.
“During the Enlightenment, mental illness was rebranded as a disease of the brain. This perspective proved revolutionary, not only in terms of the treatment of the mentally ill, but in terms of redefining what it means to be human. Over time, the shifts in paradigm accelerated. In the 19th century alone, the German physician Johann Christian Reil coined the term ‘psychiatry’, the international pharmaceutical industry took root – in America, it is now worth over USD200 billion – Darwin’s theories changed the way the West operated, and Freud introduced the concept of the human psyche as vulnerable to circumstance and reception, and as defended in its dysfunction by the intellect.
“Freud’s humane ideology initially did little to ameliorate the fear – and concomitant loathing – expressed toward the mentally ill, whose dehumanization has continued, if in a significantly less spectacular form, into the 21st century. In the absence of any therapy, the mentally ill of the 20th century were chained, shackled, straitjacketed, kept nude, electrocuted, half-frozen, parboiled, violently hosed, wrapped in wet canvas, confined to ‘mummy bags’, subjected to insulin-induced hypoglycemic comas, forced into seizures with massive doses of the stimulant Metrazol, injected with camphor, drugged into three-week comas with barbiturates and tranquilizers, involuntarily sterilized, and surgically mutilated. Rape by hospital staff was common, as was humiliation and verbal abuse. One reporter noted that a state hospital patient had been restrained for so long that his skin was beginning to grow around the leather straps.
“American psychiatrist Henry Cotton, made director of the New Jersey State Hospital in 1906 at the age of 30, was considered progressive. On one hand, he abolished the metal restraints that had imprisoned patients for hundreds of years; on the other, he insisted on the implementation of what he called ‘surgical bacteriology’. Convinced that psychosis was caused by infection, Cotton had all patients’ teeth removed. When that didn’t work, he extracted tonsils. Cotton systematically dispensed with colons, testicles, cervices, uteri, gall bladders, stomachs, and spleens. Close to half his patients died.”