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Psychiatric Atrocities: 10 Shameful Interventions Inflicted on the 'Mentally Ill'

I retired from my role of Consultant Clinical Psychologist in 2013 after 33 years in the NHS and am now a freelance writer.

The history of psychiatry is not suitable for those of a squeamish disposition. For over 200 years psychiatrists (medical doctors of the mind) have clung to the belief that mental health problems, such as 'psychosis' and 'depression', are primarily caused by biological disturbance inside the body. As such, these physicians have persisted in their attempts to 'cure' those unfortunate enough to be labelled as mad, deploying physical interventions that range from the eccentric to the sadistic.

Having decided (in their medical wisdom) which bit of the human body is the culprit, under the guise of treatment, the suspected source of the 'illness' has subsequently been assaulted, drowned, electrocuted, surgically removed or starved of sustenance. Listed below, in broadly chronological order, are the 10 most shameful interventions that doctors have inflicted on those deemed to be 'mentally ill'.

10. Expelling Fluids From the Body

9. Physical Assaults

8. Incarcerating Wives for the Convenience of Their Husbands

7. Chastity Belts and Genital Surgery

6. Surgical Removal of Organs

5. Insulin Coma Therapy

4. Leucotomy

3. Electro-Convulsive Therapy

2. Gas Chambers to Exterminate the 'Mentally Ill'

1. Neuroleptic Medication


10. Expelling Fluids From the Body

Hippocrates in the 5th century B.C. proposed a 'Humoral Theory of Mental Illness' that suggested that mental health problems were caused by 'hot blood' that needed to be extracted to achieve a cure. Further impetus to the medicinal potential of blood-letting was provided in the early 17th century when William Harvey described the circulation of the blood through the body. Subsequently, the removal of blood via leeches and other methods became a widespread practice for the treatment of both physical and mental distress.

The 18th century medical men perpetuated the idea of curative blood extraction. Anticipating a profitable business, they argued that madness was an 'illness like any other' and therefore their specialist expertise was required to heal these mental afflictions. Ants and leeches were applied to the skin of the mentally disturbed patient to suck out the bad blood. During the 19th century, fluid removal as a treatment for 'mental illness' extended beyond blood extraction, 34 different emetics (to induce vomiting) and over 50 different laxatives being employed by medical experts for the expressed purpose of restoring sanity.

9. Physical Assaults

In the 2nd half of the 19th century, physicians strived to justify their claims to possess the expertise to treat madness by deploying a range of increasingly eccentric interventions. Many of these so called treatments involved some form of physical assault on the patient’s body, including: sudden immersion in cold water; buckets of ice-cold water poured over the patient’s head; rapid spinning in a chair; 48-hours continuous exercise on a treadmill; whipping with stinging nettles and applying red-hot pokers simultaneously to the head and feet!

8. Incarcerating Wives for the Convenience of Their Husbands

Psychiatrists have the statutory power to compulsorily admit to a mental institution those deemed to be insane and continue to this day to exercise this power with disturbing regularity. The criteria for legitimately concluding that someone is suffering from a mental disorder of sufficient severity to justify involuntary incarceration have always been contentious and psychiatrists have often been notably swayed in their judgements by the prevalent culture and whim of the time.

One stark example of the arbitrary diagnosis of madness is with regards to women who have been compulsorily detained in a psychiatric asylum purely in response to requests from their husbands. Thus, in 1851 the state of Illinois enacted a statute that 'married women … may be received and detained at the hospital on the request of the husband of the woman … without the evidence of insanity or distraction required in other cases'. So if a wife was deemed a nuisance by her spouse she could, purely on his say-so, be conveniently removed to the local mental institution.

7. Chastity Belts and Genital Surgery

As the 19th century progressed, medical doctors became increasingly convinced that severe 'mental illness' was linked with masturbation. In 1867 Henry Maudsley, a highly respected British psychiatrist of the time, asserted that masturbatory insanity was 'characterized by ... extreme perversion of feeling and corresponding derangement of thought, in earlier stages, and later by failure of intelligence, nocturnal hallucinations, and suicidal and homicidal propensities'. Following logically from the assumption that masturbation causes madness, creative contraptions were invented to try to discourage the practice, including the insistence that children wear mittens spiked with metal thorns or chastity belts constructed to deny access to their own genitals.

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If these preventative measures failed, surgical interventions ensued including removal of the clitoris or the severing of the main dorsal nerve to the penis.

6. Surgical Removal of Organs

As recently as the early part of the 20th century some medical experts continued to believe that 'mental illness' was caused by toxins from infected bodily organs seeping into the brain. Hence, effective treatment was thought to necessitate the removal of the infected part.

One extreme advocate of this approach was Dr. Henry Cotton, the much-lauded Medical Director at the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton between 1907 and 1930. Those unfortunate enough to reside within his psychiatric institution were subjected to sequential removal of their bodily organs. Initially, all the patient’s teeth were extracted. If this surgical intervention did not produce the desired improvement in mental state, tonsils, testicles, ovaries and colon were, in turn, excised. Without the benefit of antibiotics, about 45% of patients died during or shortly after the operation.


5. Insulin Coma Therapy

Insulin is a hormone that acts to lower the level of glucose in the bloodstream. In diabetes, the production of insulin is impaired resulting in the sufferer experiencing the unpleasant effects associated with high levels of blood glucose. Treatment commonly consists of insulin injections to return the glucose levels to normality. If too much insulin is given, blood glucose levels will fall to dangerously low levels, starving the brain of sustenance and leading to loss of consciousness and ultimately death.

In the early 1930s, psychiatrist Manfred Sakel claimed that an insulin-induced coma had a positive effect on psychotic symptoms (for example, voice hearing and paranoia). Introduced to the USA by Joseph Wortis in 1935, insulin coma therapy was touted to be a specific treatment for 'schizophrenia' and was widely deployed across the western world throughout the 1940s and 50s.

The treatment involved a hefty injection of insulin, typically administered six days per week over a period of two months. As blood sugar dipped, the patient would often experience an epileptic seizure. Once a coma had been achieved, this state would be maintained for one to three hours. Sometimes, unconsciousness reached such an excessive depth that the patient could not be revived by infusions of glucose and death ensued in up to 10% of cases. The recipients typically had to endure intense fear and feelings of suffocation at the start of the insulin coma therapy, and ravenous hunger in the aftermath. Furthermore, many patients soiled themselves during the procedure.

It took almost 30 years for the psychiatry profession to deduce that the treatment was ineffective, a controlled study by Acker and Oldham in 1962 finding that an insulin induced coma produced no anti-psychotic effects over and above a period of unconsciousness induced by other means.

4. Leucotomy

Around the same time as psychiatric patients were being inflicted with insulin-induced comas, a Portuguese neurosurgeon was slicing brains under the guise of treating 'mental illness'. Egas Monitz (a Nobel Prize winner) conducted the first pre-frontal leucotomy in 1935, a surgical operation that involved the cutting of the nerve fibres that connect the brain from front to the back.

The procedure was subsequently refined by Walter Freeman, an American neurologist and psychiatrist together with his neurosurgeon colleague, James Watt. Their 'precision method' involved drilling holes in the scalp and required access to a surgical operating theatre and the skills of a neurosurgeon. Freeman strived to further simplify the procedure so as to enable psychiatrists in the large mental asylums to conduct the intervention themselves. Deploying an ice-pick and mallet, Freeman would access the frontal lobes through the eye-sockets. To publicise his methods, in the 1950s he travelled around the United States in a van he named the 'lobotomobile' demonstrating the technique to doctors in the state hospitals.

In the United States approximately 40,000 people underwent leucotomies, with 17,000 procedures carried out in the United Kingdom. Despite lofty claims about its efficacy with a range of psychiatric problems, the leucotomy (at best) rendered the patients malleable and easier to control. The less fortunate victims of Freeman’s interventions suffered more catastrophic consequences, including Rosemary Kennedy (23-year-old sister of future President John F. Kennedy) who was rendered dumb, incontinent, and destined to spend the remainder of her life in an asylum.


3. Electro-Convulsive Therapy

During the 1930s there emerged among medical professionals the erroneous view that epilepsy and 'schizophrenia' were mutually incompatible. By inducing epileptic fits they anticipated a corresponding improvement in a patient’s psychotic symptoms. At first, drugs were used to induce these seizures but in 1938 two Italian neuro-psychiatrists, Cerletti and Binni, developed an alternative way of triggering fits, a process that became known as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT).

Having observed pigs being stunned by electric shocks in the slaughter-house, Cerletti and Binni developed the idea of passing electricity through the human brain to evoke a generalised seizure. In the early days these seizures were so violent that, despite the nurses holding the patients’ arms and legs during the procedure, fractures of the limbs, ribs and even the spine were commonplace.

The modern-day version of ECT has been developed to make it much safer. The patient is administered both an anaesthetic and muscle-relaxant prior to electrodes being placed on the skull and the 'shock' delivered. Although no longer advocated for the treatment of psychosis, ECT is a recommended psychiatric intervention for severe 'depression' that has not responded to other interventions (drugs and psychotherapy).

Currently, the use of ECT remains controversial among both professionals and the general public. Although achieving some significant benefits for a sub-group of severely patients, the improvements are short-lived. Furthermore, ECT is responsible for a range of unwanted side-effects, including short-term and long-term memory deficits, a greater number of shocks being associated with increased risk of memory impairment. A recent extensive literature review by psychologist John Read in 2010 considered all the evidence and concluded that, 'the cost- benefit analysis for ECT is so poor that its use cannot be scientifically justified'.

2. Gas Chambers to Exterminate the 'Mentally Ill'

Psychiatry’s darkest hour undoubtedly occurred during the 2nd World War. Early research exploring the genetic basis of 'mental illness' was pioneered by German physicians who were supportive of the Nazi regime. Before the large scale extermination of Jews commenced, psychiatrists were overseeing a euthanasia programme targeting the 'mentally ill', deciding which lives were worth saving and which were not. To develop an effective means of culling the mentally defective, psychiatrists were instrumental in designing the gas chambers.

Under the guise of protecting the sane members of society, the systematic murder of mental patients commenced in 1939 and as many as 100,000 German psychiatric inmates may have been killed before Hitler officially ended the programme in 1941. Despite the Fuhrer’s intervention, psychiatrists in the local state hospitals independently continued their campaign murdering a further 70,000. The slaughter was not restricted to Germany; for example, around 30,000 psychiatric patients are believed to have perished in occupied Poland.


1. Neuroleptic Medication

In 1949 Henri Laborit, a French surgeon, made the chance discovery that a group of chemicals known as phenothiazines rendered patients more tolerant of pain and indifferent to their surroundings. Following some minor refinements, two French psychiatrists (Delay and Deniker) tried out the drug, later to be known as chlorpromazine, on a number of agitated psychiatric patients and found it had a calming effect. It was later demonstrated that, in addition to sedation, this class of 'neuroleptic' drugs had a specific therapeutic effect on psychotic symptoms. Thus the first effective treatment for 'schizophrenia' was born and soon chlorpromazine, and a raft of similar compounds collectively known as typical anti-psychotics, were being extensively used in psychiatric services across the world.

Although beneficial for some people experiencing psychosis, the serious side-effects associated with these neuroleptic drugs were grossly underplayed. Shortly after starting these medications patients commonly experience stiffness, shakiness, sexual difficulties, sluggish thinking and restlessness. But it is the consequences of long-term anti-psychotic medications that are of much greater concern, particularly in light of the fact that psychiatrists almost always recommend that the 'schizophrenia' sufferer remain on these drugs indefinitely to prevent the symptoms returning.

Peter Breggin, an American psychiatrist and a vehement critic of traditional psychiatric practice, has highlighted the risk of patients developing a condition known as tardive dyskinesia as a direct consequence of anti-psychotic drugs. A disorder of the voluntary muscles, tardive dyskinesia is characterised by jerky movements of face, torso and limbs. Those afflicted typically display recurrent grimacing, lip-smacking, rapid blinking, pursing of the lips and extreme chewing movements. The prevalence rates for tardive dyskinesia are contentious but probably somewhere between 20% to 40% of patients taking anti-psychotic drugs will show significant signs of this neurological disorder.

Symptoms of tardive dyskinesia emerge after 6 to 24-months of neuroleptic use. Psychiatrists were slow to recognise and highlight the risk of tardive dyskinesia; as Breggin acerbically states in his book Toxic Psychiatry, “for twenty years the profession simply failed to notice that a large percentage of its patients was twitching and writhing from the drugs” (p 95).

A small number of patients taking anti-psychotic medication will suffer a catastrophic reaction to the drug, a condition known as neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Those unfortunate enough to develop this disorder will typically experience a period of apathy and disinterest in their surroundings, followed by fever, heart problems, coma and death.


Dmitry on June 23, 2017:

I want to cite well-known truth:

"What happens with someone, can happen with you".

Do not stay indifferent people!

Stop the monstrous evil.

Take a part in the protest action in Berlin in October.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on December 20, 2016:

Dmitry - I complete at least 1 article each month on my site (the most recent being December 2016) - it receives a fair number of hits/reads, albeit few comments. I guess there are many websites/Facebook groups out there all competing for the same readership.

Dmitry on December 14, 2016:

Gsidley, on i did not find of fresh posts. Recent posts are dated June 2016.

Dmitry on December 12, 2016:

On facebook a lot of visitors. And many of our of like-minded. But there moderators block all possible contacts. And so no dialogue is not possible. But why our supporters do not visit other places? Why do not they open a discussion here? As their "move" from Facebook to a different location?

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on December 12, 2016:

Dimity - This post was written over 3 years ago. Most of my stuff about mental health now goes through my website.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on December 11, 2016:

I couldn't disagree, Dimitry

Dmitry on December 10, 2016:

Psychiatry is a crime according to its intended use. Determination of human individuality as the disease is crime. Exactly this psychiatry and makes. Destroys human and calls this by help.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on March 06, 2016:

Thanks for reading and commenting. Clearly, you speak with passion about the injustice of it all.

ME on March 04, 2016:

Inhumane Atrocities are yes death by way of medicinal malpractices...the drugs administered are gross misindeavours of the worst kind forcefully administered causing emotional trauma against the helpless..thier are no human rights within the walls of mental health death row. Patients are mistreated denegrated physicaly and verbally abused , encarcerated in isolation for days window taped , thier crys fall on deaf ears . Also shock Treatment is still in use although banned ..we will be the voice for the the silenced for fux sakes stand up wake up and stop candy coating wats happening in your city ....nothing but modern death camps ....grrrrrrrrrrr

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on October 02, 2015:

Yes, I fear you are right - and I've no doubt that ECT and overuse of antipsychotic medication will be two of them.

Thank you for your comment and taking the time to read my hub.

Evans1369 on October 01, 2015:

Speaking as a person with mental illness, I suspect the day will no doubt come when today's "humane" methods of treating the mentally ill are also considered to be atrocities.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on September 29, 2014:

Hi Mark

Thank you for reading and commenting.

I agree that ECT should be the very last option. Sadly, the likelihood of whether ECT is recommended depends more on the whims of the individual psychiatrist and the age & sex of the potential recipient. Also, any benefits do not persist beyond 4 weeks.

I appreciate your positive reaction to my hubs and I'll be dropping in on your stuff later today.

Mark Tulin from Palm Springs, California on September 28, 2014:

Well done article. I did witness ECT and it was very upsetting. I was a therapist and went with a client who had it done at her request. I felt I was in Dr. Frankenstein's lab. I could almost smell the brain cells frying. But despite that, I am not entirely opposed to it. There are some people who do seem to get better, although it should remain a last option.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on March 06, 2014:

Hi Laura

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

I agree. ECT is a bit like hitting someone on the head with a heavy steel frying pan - the ensuing concussion might allow them to forget their troubles for a while but at a high cost.

It's good that we can agree on some practices in the psychiatric arena!

Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on March 05, 2014:

I'm glad to hear that you include ECT in your list of atrocities--from all the research I've read, it's simply "controlled" (using the term loosely) brain damage, nothing more, and very dangerous. Earnest Hemingway killed himself shortly after receiving it because it took away his memories, which he said he needed to continue to be a writer.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on April 22, 2013:

American Psychiatrist Peter Breggin (and others) have documented a raft of evidence that long-term anti-psychotic use is associated with organic brain deficits.

woot on April 22, 2013:

Yeah..apparently some study in 2011 also showed antipsychotics when used long term caused brain atrophy..basically that they shrink your brain. Seriously. Google it.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on October 19, 2012:

I share the strength of your feeling. Your suggestions would be worthy additions to to the list.

It's so uplifting to find another person on my wave-length!

Nicola Tweedie from East Sussex, United Kingdom on October 19, 2012:

Too true, and terribly shameful. If it is ok, I would add: giving psychiatric diagnoses that name people as ill and deficient to 1) slaves that ran away from their owners and 2) people who are attracted to individuals of the same sex...and then treating them with aversive methods such as electric shocks.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on September 12, 2012:

Hi Kate

I appreciate you dropping by and leaving such generous comments.

Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on September 12, 2012:

There is so much information in this hub and much of it is shocking stuff.

Voted it up and interesting.Thanks for sharing it:-)

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on July 14, 2012:

Shannon - I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I've not seen the film to which you refer; I will look out for it, although it sounds far from uplifting. Women have disproportionately been the victims of psychiatric excesses.

Thanks again.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on July 14, 2012:

Insanity Inc. - I'm delighted you took the time to read and comment (I'll try to write briefer hubs in the future so as to maintain your attention!). Yes, let's keep flying the flag for a radically different kind of mental health service.

I hope you retain your spirit and fighting qualities for many years to come.

Best wishes.

Shannon on July 14, 2012:

I too find this hub thought provoking. I recently saw a movie, though violent, the undertone of " how to subdue women" of any age was moving to a point that I will never see that movie again. The movie, Sucker Punch, was a titillating movie about a young girls fantasies to cope with being forced into a "hospital" ( for not letting daddy screw her) whose main form of "cure" was a spike driven in next to the eye. I actually felt .... horror at the cavalier collusion of the doctors, and staff (mostly female) at the fictional hospital as they "altered" this young woman due to her not wanting her "father " to have sex with her. I am ashamed as a man that women have been treated this way throughout history. My life is full of "you can't unsee " moments and that was one of them. I cannot recommend this movie because it condones pedophilia, forced medication and shows how "hospitals " were just prisons for the strong minded women of the time. Even today you see ads for pills to fix a hard on or grow hair but nothing to address the blatant sexualization of our youth and the serious mental damage it does to them, for the rest of there lives whether it be dressing up little girls as whores or drugging little boys who are"aggressive". I hope more is done to eliminate the lack of condemnation. This is also a perfect example of what happens when government tries to remove religion from our lives. A child who is loved at home and feels the love and hope of God, would I pray, have someone in church to tell or to get counsel from to show how to behave in the world today and not feel that all is about them being "special". Those who are less manageable are drugged into compliance, not shown a new way. The truth is hidden and like so many other awful moments in human history, forgotten.

Insanity Inc from Vermont, USA on July 14, 2012:

gs: It is extremely rare I have the patience to completely read someone's writing. I have a tendency to scan. But not so here. I LOOOOOVE educational info, and although I already knew a lot of of your piece I still learned. Absolutely awesome!! Thank you for following ME. I am looking forward to a mutual learning experience. We must keep fighting the good fight, no matter which side of the desk we come from. ;)

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on June 26, 2012:

Schoolgirlforreal, thanks for taking the time to drop by -much appreciated.

schoolgirlforreal on June 25, 2012:

Interesting hub, especially the ones at the top I had not heard of.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on May 24, 2012:

Meloncauli, I think you are spot on in your summing up of the prevailing situation in western psychiatric services: flimsy evidence to support psychiatric practice; vested interests of the powerful pharmaceutical industry; and the psychiatry profession clinging to its privileged position as the dominant mental health grouping.

In a similar way to you, I am not anti-psychiatrist. I've worked with many genuine psychiatrists over the years and I have positive relationships with some today. But I am anti-psychiatry - the profession's obsession with trying to apply medical practices to problems of the mind are counter-productive at best, and too often have a disastrous impact on the recipients of their practices.

meloncauli from UK on May 24, 2012:

Although it's an archaic thing to say perhaps, I still believe it is all about about a form of control and a huge money making spin for drug companies. I actually don't think it's particularly the psychiatrists fault. The ground rules have been set by the American Psychiatric Association's DSM. What is very sad is that psychiatrists are doctors in the first instance, psychiatrists in the second. A doctor in the medical sense wouldn't get away with what psychiatrists do. Psychiatry is a so called science - sadly with much flimsy evidence to back it up.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on May 23, 2012:

Hyphenbird - I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my hub.

I think you capture the essence of what's gone wrong in your use of the term "arrogant". Psychiatrists have clearly held an unshakable belief that they, and only they, know what's best for their patients, a stance that remains prevalent in western psychiatric systems today.

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on May 22, 2012:

Your research is in depth and the subject matter very disturbing but necessary knowledge. I believe mental illness is still largely hidden and seen as shameful just as in the past. That is why the atrocities have been allowed to occur. When someone is arrogant enough to cut away part of a person's brain or disturb the electric current in the body, a good outcome is not possible.

The procedures and statistics here in your article are incredibly sad. I pray we all stand up and refuse to allow our mentally ill loved ones to be abused like this ever again.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on May 07, 2012:

Angelo - Thanks for reading my hub and taking the time to comment. The misuse of power (in this case "expert" and legal power) can make grim reading, but let's hope we can all learn something.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on May 07, 2012:

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my hub.

I agree that some of our current practices in society will probably, in time, be viewed as ridiculous or unethical. Sadly, I think a substantial proportion of these practices will arise from contemporary psychiatric practice.

Dr. Gary L. Sidley (author) from Lancashire, England on May 07, 2012:

meloncauli - I appreciate your comments. The hubs you have written on mental health issues look interesting and I have now enrolled as one of your followers.It will be fascinating to read the thoughts of someone who has a wealth of experience (both as a recipient and provider) of the UK psychiatric system.

Angelo52 on May 06, 2012:

Great hub. Another human tragedy imposed by the "elite" on the rest of society. Seems like a neverending story, the human ability to justify intolerance - in this case of those considered mentally ill.

Lyn.Stewart from Auckland, New Zealand on May 06, 2012:

Very informative hub. I definitely lernt something so thanks.

It is never easy to look back on the atrocities that were common practice in our society. It makes you wonder what treatments in the future will be seen in this same light. voted up and interesting.

meloncauli from UK on May 06, 2012:

Excellent hub. Psychiatry makes my blood boil at times. I have written some hubs you may find interesting. This particular subject is close to my heart.

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