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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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Fortunately the securing of the whole truth does not depend upon skilful apologists -- or upon those whose standard of truth has been lowered by years of enforced shouldering of the public's shortcomings. In every improperly conducted institution there will be found a few attendants, both men and women, who at heart loathe the conditions under which they are compelled to get their livelihood. These would welcome an opportunity to tell the truth and help correct the evils which so offend their better natures. The only incentive they need is a knowledge that the public will support them in a course which, if pursued independently, would probably be met with incredulity, and could result only in their discharge. It is mainly on such a nucleus of witnesses that I rest my complete confidence in the efficacy of any honestly conducted investigation -- provided the testimony adduced be given the publicity it deserves.


Though hospital officials will say, with truth, that public investigations -- impending or in progress -- seriously interfere with the routine work of the medical staff, and bring distress to relatives of the inmates by arousing, in many instances, unwarranted fears, these considerations, to my mind, are of no moment compared to the advantages that will be gained by treating a disgrace of heroic proportions with a remedy equally heroic. In order to effect lasting reforms this whole subject must first be brought home to the people. And nothing short of the public investigation of every institution where the insane are confined can bring about the desired result. The interest of the people in a given territory can be effectively roused in one way only, and that is by investigating the particular hospitals wherein the insane of a given community are confined. In this way, provided every hospital for the insane, not forgetting the private ones, be investigated, interest would be aroused throughout the country, for few communities are without afflicted representation in the institutions under discussion. One word more. Investigators should begin and conclude their labors with dispatch. Let the whole distressing situation be cleared up within a few months after the anticipated country-wide agitation shall be begun. To let matters drag would be an injustice to all concerned, -- especially to the patients themselves.


In conspicuous instances the investigations will reveal a satisfactory state of affairs. Fortunately there are a number of institutions managed by men both honorable and capable. Such managements have nothing to fear. In fact, they will only receive that credit which of right should redound to those who, in the midst of unfavorable conditions, and in spite of a dormant public, have so nobly discharged their duty to the least safeguarded of the world's unfortunates.


With the complete record of past and present conditions before the public, those responsible for the evils exposed should be offered one more chance of service. This charitable attitude should be adhered to, except in those instances where officials under examination stubbornly refuse to co-operate with a committee of investigation, -- or where doctors or attendants have been proved guilty of an offense that cannot, in justice to the patients and to the public, be forgiven. But, even in such cases as the latter, charity should prevail; and, in view of the fact that these guilty men are, in a way, victims of a vicious system, they should be simply discharged, rather than branded forever as criminals.


No doubt many persons, particularly politicians who consider the success of their respective parties of more consequence than the comfort and happiness of a constituency bereft of reason and the right to vote, will feel that it would be a waste of time to lay bare a distressing, perhaps disgusting, account of brutalities covering a period that has passed. If my insight into a situation of this kind is worth anything, the public will do well to weigh my words before listening to the biased opinions of those who fear the truth. An investigation covering a short period would be an injustice either to the inmates of an institution or to its management, or, indeed, to both. A guilty management, anticipating an investigation, could and would temporarily correct all discoverable abuses. This very thing has often happened, and always will happen so long as the instinct of self-preservation persists. Doctors who voluntarily have never lifted a finger to protect their patients against abuse sit up nights to correct abuses the moment an investigation becomes imminent -- thus proving how easily their vigilance could be permanently maintained.


I shall cite a case in point. I have already made brief mention of a stroke of reform brought about in Kentucky through the efforts of an ex-attendant. It was during the month of September, 1906, that I happened to be traveling in that State. As already mentioned I chanced to pick up a copy of the Louisville Courier-Journal, in which I saw a heading that caught my eye and soon gripped my heart. It read as follows: "SAYS PATIENT WAS KILLED -- Charge Publicly Made By Ex-Attendant." This "ex-attendant," whom I now number among my friends, was over six feet in height and proportionately powerful. Because of his great strength, upon entering the hospital he was at once assigned to a so-called "back ward." He demurred at his assignment, preferring to work in a ward where the patients were comparatively happy. But the doctors made their orders peremptory -- much to their later regret. For, in the course of his work, this full-blooded man saw sights which so outraged his manhood that he protested vehemently to the authorities. His protest went unheeded so long as he remained in the employ of the State. At last, when a helpless Patient had been killed by his brutal co-workers, he resigned and forced the management to take heed by bringing the matter before the Governor of Kentucky who ordered an investigation. Then, of course, abuses which might incriminate were virtually corrected in a night. Brutality ceased. Attendants who, on many occasions, had bathed in a single tubful of water as many as fifty men, some of whom had pestilential sores on their bodies, immediately adopted a more sanitary method; and whereas, under the old method, the inmates of an entire ward had been run through a mass of cumulative filth within two or three hours, under the enforced sanitary reform it took a like corps of attendants -- if not the same men -- the better part of two days to complete their task. (15) Does not this wonderful change in methods (if not change of heart) prove how efficacious an aroused and outraged public opinion can really be? I say, then, it behooves the public to assume part of the burden of the afflicted and oppressed insane by compelling the several managements to work as well every day in the year as they do when an investigation impends or is in progress.

(15) These statements regarding improper methods of bathing -- an almost universal abuse in hospitals for the insane -- are based on an affidavit given me by the "ex-attendant" who instigated the Kentucky investigation. Though the aforementioned abuse is widespread, its remedy is within easy reach. Let hospital managements abolish stationary tubs entirely and install in their stead modern shower baths and the like. However, any law or rule governing this matter should not be so strict as to prevent the use of a tub in the giving of the so-called "continuous bath" to excited patients.

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