Madness in America: A history of mental health


An exhibit in Wilbur Cross at the Center for Students with Disabilities depict the overview of the history of mental health. The panels will be on display until September 29. (Olivia Stenger/The Daily Campus)

From Tuesday, Sept. 12th to Friday, Sept. 29th there will be an exhibit on the history of mental health in America in the Wilbur Cross Building.

The six-panel exhibit, “Madness in America,” is displayed outside the Center for Students with Disabilities office on the second floor. The exhibit is organized chronologically and based on mental health-related subjects, varying from the history of mental institutions to pop cultural depictions of mental illness.

Beginning with “Madness in the Colonies,” the lack of public records and proper institutions for mental health created a scarcity of concrete information regarding treatment of the mentally ill in the 18th century.

There were 82 documented cases of insanity in an estimated population of 300,000 in British America and the Caribbean between 1607 and 1700. The absence of reported cases is primarily because most people considered insane during this era were treated by family members in their homes.

“Madness in the Colonies” goes on to discuss first legislation regarding mental illness, including Connecticut’s 1699 “Act for Relieving Idiots and Distracted Persons.” The first hospital dedicated only to the treatment of the insane opened in Williamsburg, VA in 1773.

“Moral treatment,” an attempt to create more humane living conditions for those in asylums, came into effect in the late 1790s. Moral treatment began as a way to combat the practices of “medical men,” including bloodletting, spinning chairs and various forms of water treatment.

As institutions became more humane, their population increased as well. By 1880, one in every 554 Americans were in mental health institutions.

During the 20th century, those who were admitted to insane asylums for treatment began to write about their experiences, both in and outside of the institution.

The Opal, a monthly journal which ran from 1851 to 1860, was written, edited and published by patients at the Utica State Lunatic Asylum. The Opal contained art as well as first-hand accounts of patient abuse.

A Mind that Found Itself, written in 1908 by Clifford Beers, is an autobiographical account of the Yale graduate’s stint in a mental hospital after an attempted suicide. First-hand stories such as these were able to enact real change in the organization and treatments in mental health institutions.

More recent accounts of patient experiences include the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, published in 1963.

The exhibit also includes a brief description of bodily treatment, both those of physical consequence and the pharmaceutical takeover of the late 1900s to present.

Mental illness treatments have come a long way since the days of organ removal and lobotomies. Primitive medications, such as Thorazine, which were initially advertised as miracle drugs, resulted in crippling long-term side-effects.

Though modern medicine has been under attack as of late due to the side-effects and addictive tendencies for some medications, antidepressants and antipsychotics are a large part of the “big pharma” age. The sales of the antidepressant Prozac topped one billion dollars in 1995.

With the increase in Americans being treated for mental illnesses, it is more important than ever that we are aware of the history and treatments available.

This comprehensive exhibit offered in Wilbur Cross depicts an adequate and informative history of mental health in the United States. While our nation still has progress to make and stigmas to overcome involving  mental illness, being informed on our history helps pave the way for a more understanding future.

Abby Brone is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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