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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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There are doctors in our State Hospitals who will tell you that to treat certain cases on their merits will demoralize those patients whose condition is such that individual treatment seems unnecessary or hopeless. As most asylums are now conducted, the individual treatment of the few might arouse a feeling of discontent among those denied special privileges. But would any such demoralization ensue if each patient was treated with that consideration he so richly deserves? I know that it would not. When one patient sees a fellow-patient allowed more liberty, or perhaps granted a more inviting diet than himself, it is not so much a feeling of jealousy or envy that seizes him -- in his heart he is glad that some one of his kind is given pleasure. What he rebels against is the fact that he himself is denied, not special privileges, but those ordinary benefits which in any hospital deserving of the name would be his without the asking.


Another objection which the management of a state hospital sometimes makes to the plea for individual treatment is that under the law one patient is as deserving as another, and that the granting of privileges, favors, etc., to the comparatively few curable cases cannot be accomplished without working an injustice to the many whose condition does not demand exceptional care. The glib way in which those in authority in a state hospital prate about justice would bring a smile to the face of the shy goddess who perhaps presides over that virtue. These expounders of Equal Rights for All will refuse to alter a general and mechanical course of treatment which is admittedly crude and unproductive of good results; yet these very men seem willing to discriminate between patients so long as the discrimination leads not to exceptional privileges but to exceptional privations.


Though those in authority are deserving of considerable criticism there are many reasons why they should be treated with all charity. If we are to demand that doctors treat each patient as though he were the only one in the world, we must, through the several State Legislatures, provide funds for the proper equipment and manning of our institutions. To-day there are few institutions where the doctors in charge have not under their care a greater number of patients than can be properly treated. Nor are there many institutions regularly provided with an adequate corps of attendants. Indeed, if the United States Government were to send into an engagement a battleship as poorly manned as are our asylums, the people would rise in their indignation and demand that the honor of the Nation be given into other keeping. To my, perhaps prejudiced, mind, the honor of this Nation is open to attack so long as the States force, or permit, great institutions to proceed in their work with defective equipment or an inadequate complement of workers.




BUT more fundamental than espionage, and more fundamental than individual as opposed to collective treatment, is the need of a changed spiritual attitude toward the insane. They are still human: they love and hate, and have a sense of humor. The worst are usually responsive to kindness. In not a few cases their gratitude is livelier than that of normal men and women. Any person who has worked among the insane, and done his duty by them, can testify to cases in point, and even casual observers have noted the fact that the insane are oftentimes appreciative. Consider the experience of Thackeray, as related by himself in "Vanity Fair" (Chapter LVII). "I recollect," he writes, "seeing, years ago, at the prison for idiots and madmen, at Bicetre, near Paris, a poor wretch bent down under the bondage of his imprisonment and his personal infirmity, to whom one of our party gave a halfpennyworth of snuff in a cornet or 'screw' of paper. The kindness was too much for the poor epileptic creature. He cried in an anguish of delight and gratitude; if anybody gave you and me a thousand a year, or saved our lives, we could not be so affected."


A striking exhibition of fine feeling on the part of an inmate of an asylum was brought to my attention by an assistant physician whom I met while inspecting a certain State Hospital in Massachusetts. It seems that the patient in question -- a woman -- while at her worst had caused an endless amount of annoyance by indulging in mischievous acts which seemed to verge on the malicious. Judged by her conduct at that time no observer would have credited her with the exquisite sensibility she so signally displayed when she had become convalescent and was granted a parole which permitted her to walk at will about the hospital grounds. After one of these walks, taken in the early spring, she rushed up to my informant and, with childlike simplicity, told him of the thrill of delight she had experienced in discovering the first flower of the year in full bloom -- a dandelion, which, with characteristic audacity, had risked its life by braving the elements of an uncertain season.

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