Light Shed On The History Of Psychiatric Abuse In Ireland

An article in The Irish Times concerns an upcoming documentary, Behind the Walls, about the history of the atrocious maltreatment of people in psychiatric institutions in that country, Revealing the horrific past of psychiatric hospitals.

In one report from the documentary, concerning year 1958, you get the following…

It was a revealing year in the context of Irish mental institutions. The patient population was close to an all-time high of more than 21,000. For many years, Ireland had led the world in locking up its people in psychiatric hospitals – on a per capita basis, it was even ahead of the old Soviet Union.

The article attributes this figure to social causes more than anything else. This number of people might not seem so startling until you begin comparing it to the numbers of people held in prisons at the same time in Ireland.

In addition to his international comparisons, Dr Brennan looked at figures closer to home, in particular comparing numbers locked up in psychiatric hospitals with those in prisons. This presents a truly remarkable picture of Irish society in the mid-decades of the 20th century, where the number of prisoners rarely exceeded 600. In 1958, the year of Dr Ramsey’s Clonmel report, this number was 369.

This is the kind of statistic that screams over-diagnosis and over-treatment. On top of this sort of over-kill, those maltreatments involved included the now mostly defunct and damaging practices of insulin shock therapy and lobotomy.

Another fascinating revelation is about how artifacts from the lives of some of the prisoners held at one of these institutions were preserved in an attic, much as were such artifacts discovered in an attic at Willard State Hospital in New York State in the United States, the recent subject of a successful museum exhibit and book, The Lives They Left Behind – Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic.

When patients died (to be buried, unnamed, in mass graves in Glasnevin cemetery), their modest few belongings ended up in the attics of the many buildings that make up the complex of Grangegorman.

These were rescued recently by a group of dedicated retired psychiatric nurses who have begun the process of cataloguing them. It is an immense job, with thousands of personal possessions – holy pictures, packets of cigarettes, lipsticks, letters, shoes, rosary beads, photographs, handbags, spectacles.

This is the kind of a history that returns the lives of people who endured much prejudice and discrimination, and who were doubly abused by neglect and cruelty, back to us. Those of us who have known psychiatric imprisonment and oppression first hand are keenly aware of the importance of this kind of a historical documentation. Psychiatric hospitals are not to be confused with amusement park fun houses despite the use to which some abandoned asylums have been put in the USA recently. In the interests of decency and humanity, not to mention accurate accounting, we need much more of this sort of research and historical preservation.

While we’ve seen films on the history of mental health maltreatment in Great Britian, and now in Ireland, I’ve yet to see any such major undertaking attempted in the USA. I know that, accompanying preservation efforts, much destruction of evidense is going on all the time. This makes the urgency and importance all that greater for preservation efforts to be made. I would also like to see one or two of these abandoned asylums made into a museum of archaic maltreatment devices and practices. Hopefully, this present neglect means we have something of the sort to look forward to in the future.