From witch trials to shock therapy to modern medicine, the Glore Psychiatric Museum presents the real and sobering history of mental health treatment in America.
Psychiatric hospitals have a checkered past in the United States, so much that they’ve become a recurring backdrop for horror movies and TV shows.
FX’s acclaimed American Horror Story centered their entire second season around a fictional 1960s mental health institution. Though dramatized for fright-inducing effect, many of the show’s events are rooted in truth.
The problems with mental health treatment are numerous but rarely nefarious. Many of the treatments we’ve come to revile were born of noble intentions.
It was just over 300 years ago that the Salem Witch Trials burned people at the stake, many of whom are suspected to have suffered from conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and dissociative identity disorder.
But that was so long ago, right? Well, it was just 70 years ago that ice pick lobotomies were being performed on patients. In the peak year (1949) there were 5,074 recorded lobotomies in the United States. That’s nearly 14 per day.
The truth is that mental health is complex and poorly understood–even today.
The Glore Psychiatric Museum is the largest display of psychiatric treatment in America
Glore asked patients to help build full-sized replicas of 16th-18th century psychiatric treatment devices, such as the Human Hamster Wheel (unofficial name) and Lunatic Box (official name), for Mental Health Awareness Week.
Impressed by both the quality and the impact of the above exhibits, the hospital expanded the museum over the years until it reached the size it is today–four floors of antiques and exhibits that range from depressing to hopeful.
It all starts in the basement. More specifically, the morgue.
No, that isn’t a real body. Yes, it’s still creepy. The fluorescent light, chilling quiet, and outline of a human body are enough to make your skin crawl.
Next to the morgue you’ll find a treatment room with some exercise equipment and this monstrosity.
That’s a hydrotherapy tank where patients were strapped down and submerged in cold water. (No thank you!) Cold water slows down blood flow to the brain and was used to treat manic-depressive patients.
And then there’s shock therapy
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), otherwise known as shock therapy, became widespread in the 1940s and 1950s as a means of treating patients by inducing seizures.
You’ve probably heard of ECT, and you probably have some opinions on it thanks to Hollywood. Take this scene from the 1975 film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest about a patient in a 1963 mental hospital.
Developed in the 1930s, ECT works by using electricity to trigger seizures. It sounds horrifying, but it was actually used as a more humane method of inducing seizures. Previously doctors used a drug called Metrazol, but patients hated it because it brought on a sense of severe dread before the seizure.
Despite its efficacy, the idea still persists that ECT equals bad. It’s scary-looking stuff, and TV and movies really dial it up.
That’s not entirely accurate. Take this excerpt from an article on BBC:
No-one really knows how it works. But in more than 80% of cases, ECT can help shed the most harmful symptoms of mania, catatonia (a mental condition that leaves patients withdrawn, mute, and unresponsive), or severe depression that can slide into suicide.Alex Riley, BBC
That same article compares ECT with chemotherapy, which also has a laundry list of side effects and complications that seem torturous on the patient.
When used properly, ECT can be a powerful tool. However, there’s no doubt that in the 1940s-1960s, the threat of ECT was used in hospitals to control patients and fix unwanted behaviors.
Who’s actually being treated?
That brings us to an important question in the history of mental illness: Are these procedures treating the illness at its core or treating the symptoms?
Asked more cynically: Are these procedures actually helping the patients or just making the families, doctors, and hospital staff feel more comfortable around patients with bizarre and unpredictable behaviors?
Breakthroughs in psychiatric medication came in the 1950s led by Thorazine. Hailed as a miracle drug by doctors for its ability to calm otherwise violent patients, does the drug actually make the patient better or just make them more manageable and less frightening?
In truth, it’s a little bit of both. Antipsychotics are still prescribed today, but they’re done so in combination with talk therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Not all therapies were scary
Human Hamster Wheel, Lunatic Box, hydrotherapy, ECT–these all sound scary, don’t they? Not all treatments were like that.
Patients were often encouraged to be creative. Check out the following real art created by patients at the St. Joseph State Mental Hospital.
Music and painting were other forms of treatment.
The difficulty treating mental illness
Treating mental illness is different than treating the flu or a broken leg. The human mind is the most complex known structure in the universe, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what we can know about it.
It’s this complexity that makes identifying and treating mental illness extraordinarily difficult. It was only 150 years ago that we discovered that bacteria and viruses cause disease and subsequently decided it might be a good idea to sanitize medical equipment.
How are we supposed to fix something we barely understand?
It’s easy to look at ice pick lobotomies and wonder how we ever allowed that to happen. But what procedures are we performing today that will be frowned upon in 100 years?
If you visit the Glore Psychiatric Museum there’s a 10 minute video at the beginning that gives you the overview of the institution’s history. In that video, a physician flat out says that he wonders every day what people in the future will think about the medications he prescribes today. Will they look back on his actions and call him reckless and inhumane?
The treatment of mental illness is an ever-evolving field, and the Glore Psychiatric Museum does a phenomenal job presenting its sobering history by zeroing in on the humanity of both the doctors and the patients.
Thinking of visiting the Glore Psychiatric Museum?
This museum is an atypical stop for sure. It probably isn’t something you’d come all the way to western Missouri to see, but it’s a fascinating way to spend an hour if you’re at all interested in the human condition.
Address: 3406 Frederick Ave, St Joseph, MO 64506
Hours: 10:00a-5:00p Mon-Sat and 1:00p-5:00p Sun
Admission: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for students
Note: The building which houses the Glore Psychiatric Museum also houses a few other museums, which are on the top floors and much smaller but included with your price of admission: Doll Museum, Black Archives Museum, and Native American Galleries.