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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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Such an arrangement would relieve the doctors both of work and of responsibility. Instead of censoring every letter, as they now feel called upon to do, they would need only to satisfy themselves that a patient's letter was addressed to some one of his authorized correspondents. (13)

(13) In some States the law provides that a patient may write to designated State officials and that such letters shall be forwarded, uncensored. As far as it goes it is a good law. But how far does it go? Would it not be better to put and keep the patient in close and honest touch with relatives and friends by adopting some such plan as I have ventured to suggest? Blood is thicker and warmer than the chilly waters of impersonal officialism.


An objection which the doctors have in the past entertained toward this suggestion is that the patient will perhaps use improper language in his letters. It cannot be denied that in every such hospital there are always a few patients whose condition of mind will impel them to write with a brutal frankness likely to offend the taste of the fastidious. The fact is, however, that there are no patients at any time in any hospital whose letters will seriously offend the sensibilities of the two or three selected representatives whose bounden duty it is to share the afflicted one's burden. Surely a patient's letters need not distress his relatives and friends more than his unwilling silence. Further, let such relatives and friends ask themselves whether they would rather be obliged to read or, alas! to write such letters.


Those patients whose mental disease is of a form characterized by prevarication -- a kind not common -- will soon prove the fact in their letters. After that fact has been proved the recipients of the letters will be able to judge their contents and act accordingly. Such lies can do no one harm, and the mere telling of them may, perhaps, do the patient good. It seems to be an almost universal belief that the statements of insane persons are to be regarded with a degree of suspicion that amounts to disbelief. On this point I feel qualified to speak. Aside from delusions (which have nothing to do with the question) there is, I am sure, not a less degree of truth spoken among a given number of insane persons than among a like number of sane persons indiscriminately selected. The insane, as a class, are the most outspoken speakers of the truth to be found anywhere, in that respect rivaling the proverbial child. Freed from the restraining conventions of polite society, if they have an opinion to offer they rid themselves of it without reserve. And it is this very freedom of expression (aside from delusions) which, in my opinion, puts the statement of the average insane person on a par with the reserved, self-interested, and frequently biased statements of the average sane member of society at large. I argue with one thought in mind: that the inmates of an asylum are, on the whole, as well qualified to tell the truth regarding its abuses as the inhabitants of the sane world are to describe abuses in their respective spheres of activity.


As conditions now are, hundreds of these true accounts of abuse are each year confiscated by those, directly or indirectly, guilty of it. And much that makes the lives of the inmates so miserable has continued so long because of the ease with which a careless, if not criminal, management may cover its tracks. A due observance of the liberty of correspondence would go far to destroy this unjust immunity. Physicians to-day often declare that their one thought in controlling the correspondence of an insane charge is that he may thus be kept in a calm and peaceful state of mind. But their real motive is likely to be nothing more than a selfish -- if not cowardly -- desire to protect themselves against well merited criticism by the public. Oftentimes this self-protecting attitude of the medical staff may be traced to the known but not openly expressed wish of a timid Board of Trustees, or to the wish of supposedly influential politicians, who perhaps ask no more of the management of an institution than that it shall so conduct affairs as to avoid "investigations" or so-called "hospital scandals." Thus the sick insane are made to suffer, for no better reason, apparently, than that certain sane persons in positions of responsibility may escape annoyance.


What will put an end to this disgraceful state of affairs? Many elaborate statutes would seem, on their face, to protect patients against every imaginable abuse. Yet they fail, and will continue to fail, until there is a militant public sentiment of sufficient strength to coerce the several hospital managements into a vigilant and considerate activity. The lasting correction of evils lies with the public, therefore it behooves each individual to contribute his word or deed to the total effect.




THE central problem in the care of the insane is the elimination of actual physical abuse. What I have narrated from my own experience and from the experiences of others makes clear enough the nature of the average attendant. Under a bad regime their baser natures gradually gain the mastery. Surprising as it may seem, many an assault is due in the last analysis to a wanton desire to satisfy what amounts to a craving for human blood. This fact is well illustrated in the remark of an attendant, in the Kentucky institution already referred to, who said, "When I came here if any one had told me that I would be guilty of striking a patient I would have called him crazy himself, but now I take delight in punching hell out of them."

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