Novel Reading as a Mental Illness: circa 1864-89, Time and Treatment Modalities

In my research for “Surviving Sister”, a novel that tells the stories of two sisters in the 1950s afflicted with mental disorder, I ran across a very interesting article with photographs. Which you can see here:

I am finding many obscure medical references to treatment modalities. Very little is explained, even in medical journals, about what these modalities actually involved. For example; “immersion therapy”, sounds like deep thought, but what they actually did was immersing hysterical patients into a bath of ice cold water. It was believed to cool the core body temperature down, calming the nervous system.



Another interesting photo on this web site lists the reasons that patients were admitted to the asylum. I would have most likely never found my way out if ever I found my way in. Read down the list and see if you fit anywhere. When you get to “Novel Reading” stop and think about that. I’m terribly afflicted.


Sheesh! No wonder so many folk ended up in these places without any medical justification. Families often sent “undesirables” for simply being “lazy” when they showed signs of depression. Many were locked away for the remainder of their lives, even buried on hospital properties.

Treatment modalities were given long, complex terms like, “Lateral cerebral diathermia treatment,” a method using a galvanized current to jolt psychosis sufferers.


Different facilities around the nation employed various “treatments” and there was no uniform guide for consistency by diagnosis. Controlling symptomatic behaviors was the expectation of facility staff. No one was ever cured, they were reformed or recovered.

Very hard to get a handle on exactly what was going on inside of these places except through tales told by survivors. Documentation is limited. Scary, huh? And we think facilities are bad now. Certainly not ideal, but a vast improvement over what I am seeing from yesteryear.

I believe the biopsychsocial model used during the 1980s was the closest we have come to ideal. The State hospitals cleaned up their act. Facilities were equipped with swimming pools and gyms, walking trails and jogging tracks, offered art and music therapies and took patients out into the community to introduce these “clients” to vast community resources. We went to art shows, bowling, support group meetings, theaters. There was much more individual and group “talk” therapy.

The typical stay during that decade was thirty days to six months. People took advantage of the system, malingering for months into years and insurance companies caught on quickly reducing lifetime maximums and days allowed per episode. Now they are strictly medical model, shoving a few pills at patients and sending them to community outpatient services in a matter of a few short days…before the meds (which usually take two weeks to thirty days to reach effective therapeutic level) even have a chance to kick in. Only the sickest and most psychotic are allowed more than a two week stay.

In many ways it is good to have patients treated in their own communities rather than as inpatient, but most communities simply don’t provide the necessary resources and that’s sad.

What do you think about mental health resources available in your community?