Mental Institutions in the 1950s

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How were mental institutions different in the mid-20th century? In this lesson, we'll look at mental institutions in the 1950s, including the rapid changes that occurred during that decade.

Mental Institutions

Jamie has had a tough life. Besides his job and school, he's had to help take care of his brother, who has schizophrenia, and his sister, who has serious depression. He's heard that times are very different now than they were just a few decades ago and he wonders how things would have been different if he and his siblings had lived in the 1950s.

One area that has changed since the 1950s is the use and running of mental institutions, or hospitals that specialize in treating psychiatric patients. Jamie knows about mental institutions because his brother has been in and out of them for several years. Like his brother, many patients in mental institutions receive inpatient treatment, meaning that they live in the hospital for a time.

So how would things have been different if Jamie and his siblings were living in the 1950s? To understand that, let's look at how mental institutions were run back then.

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  • 0:00 Mental Institutions
  • 0:59 Early 1950s:…
  • 2:52 Mid 1950s: Drug Therapy
  • 4:07 Late 1950s:…
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Early 1950s: Traditional Methods

In the early 1950s, mental institutions were quite different, both in who they treated and how they treated patients. Any type of psychological abnormality, from depression to schizophrenia to intellectual disability (which used to be called mental retardation) could be treated by putting someone into an institution. Even someone who was mildly depressed could end up spending months or even years in a mental institution.

Some treatments were very different as well. In the 1950s, mental institutions regularly performed lobotomies, which involve surgically removing part of the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for a person's emotions, personality, and reasoning skills, among other things. Lobotomies reduced violence and willfulness in patients, but often left them blank, with little emotion or personality. Today lobotomies are very rarely done. However, in the early 1950s, someone with depression, like Jamie's sister, could have had a lobotomy done. And, unlike today, where the procedure is more precise, back then a lobotomy could have left her permanently unable to function on her own.

More common, both back then and today, was a different treatment known as electroconvulsive therapy, also called electroshock therapy (ECT). This involves sending electrical shocks to the brain to change the way it functions. ECT is still used today, though not as often as it was used in the early 1950s. Back then it was frequently used for all sorts of psychological conditions, including depression. Today, Jamie's sister takes drugs for her depression and lives outside of a mental institution. Back in the early 1950s, it is likely that she would be living in an institution and have ECT and/or a lobotomy done on her.

Mid-1950s: Drug Therapy

By the mid-1950s, though, things were starting to change. Before the 1950s, the psychiatric world had seen limited success with psychopharmacological therapy, or drug therapy for psychiatric disorders. To remember that term, you can break it up: 'psycho,' meaning psychological, and 'pharmacological,' meaning drug (think of a pharmacy). The drugs used to treat psychological patients before the 1950s were still relatively rare and either not very effective and/or hampered by serious side effects. But in the early 1950s, psychopharmacological treatments became better and more widespread.

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