From Asylums to Recovery -A Critique of a Mental Health America Documentary

By Marvin Ross

I just recently came across a documentary on Youtube put out by Mental Health America called From Asylums to Recovery – a celebration of the so called consumer survivor, anti-psychiatry movement in the US and beyond. After showing some images of the horrific conditions that people were forced to live in in asylums, we are greeted with the statement that in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were 550,000 people locked up in asylums. Many, the documentary goes on to say, were locked up by their families and the courts because no one believed that those with mental illness could recover.

Horrific conditions did exist and no one can deny that but people were in the institutions because they could not usually recover in those days. Recover isn’t even the right word which really should be that their symptoms could not be dealt with appropriately. Recover really means to be cured and that is not possible for illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The doc then states that today there are about 50,000 people in psychiatric facilities and that the system has improved. This reduction, they claim, is the result of 100 years of patient/consumer/survivor advocacy. The documentary then goes on to try to explain how this reduction in patients and improvement came about by interviewing many of those who were involved in the consumer/survivor movement.

What is missing, of course, is that from the early 1960’s on, new medications came along that, for the first time, could treat the worst of the symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. In fact, the first anti-psychotic, chlopromazine, was discovered in the 1950’s and its first North American use was in Montreal in 1954.

That was the beginning and over the years, more anti--psychotics were developed so that doctors now can experiment to find the one that works best for a particular patient.

Lithium, the gold standard treatment for bipolar was first used in 1954 but not introduced into the US until the 1970’s. The US was late to the game as it was the 50th country to start using this agent to treat bipolar disorder.

Anti-depressant drugs to treat major depressive disorder began about 1957 with the appearance of the MAO inhibitors. This class of drugs had their problems with interactions with some food products such as cheese. However, other classes of drugs such as the tricyclic antidepressants, the SSRI’s and now other agents like ketamine are in use.

Those in asylums were able to have the worst of their symptoms treated successfully and to be released from hospital. Mental Health America fails to mention any of this and attributes the emptying of hospitals to the works of the consumer survivors and anti-psychiatry advocates. The problem, however, was that governments were too anxious to release people without first setting up proper community resources to aid and assist those being discharged.

Known as deinstitutionalization, the process has resulted in sick people being left in the community to fare for themselves. As a result, many of the homeless and those incarcerated are suffering from untreated mental illness. Is being homeless or in jail an improvement on the asylums of old? I think not!

All of this (drug development and deinstitutionalization) is ignored in this documentary designed to celebrate the 100+ years that MHA has existed. It began life in 1909 as the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. An organization that has been around for that long I would hope would have more understanding of mental illness than displayed in this documentary. The popular media, in my opinion, displays a greater understanding.

If you are a fan of the TV series Homeland, and have not seen season 7 then stop here unless you want the ending. The protagonist, Carrie Mathison, is a CIA agent with bipolar disorder. In this season, she is captured by the Russians and held prisoner before eventually being exchanged for a Russian spy held by the Americans.

As part of her torture, the Russians withhold her bipolar meds. After a significant time without medication, Carrie is returned to the US in the state that anyone who understands mental illness and the role of medications would understand. She is an incoherent mess and basket case. If Hollywood can understand this, why can an agency involved in the mental health field not understand it?

7 thoughts on “From Asylums to Recovery -A Critique of a Mental Health America Documentary

  1. The reality of untreated mental illness involving a psychosis seems not to surface in the film ” From Asylums to recovery.

    Before medications that were truly helpful were available, there were no doubt scenes of horror. Untreated schizophrenia and manic depression is not a pretty sight. We see many examples on our street in 1919. Criminal in my view to abandon people to this neglect.

    Diagnosis was not always clear, and finding the right treatment was not a straightforward process. And yes, there were treatments that were not fitting and indeed wrong . But I worked in the late nineteen fifties and in the early sixties and I only saw ECT given without a muscle relaxant once, and that was not pleasant, to witness but in the particular case it was impossible to give it any other way . The ladies second ECT was given using relaxants. The treatment worked.

    I now understand why Lithium was not used in my training hospital , though it h had been discovered in Australia in 1945 (Cade)
    I saw a person in acute mania being given it in Cambridge in the early sixties . Within a few days the woman was sane and her acute paranoia had gone away.I have just read Lithium by Walter A Brown M.D Quite revealing it is. It is the serendipitous story of its discovery and use for Manic Depression Bi-polar 1. It also explains what the roadblock were for its use as well as what it had been unwisely used for in earlier times. It is well worth the read particularly a chapter called “Prophylaxis Rex” This describes a very interesting fight within the psychiatric community centred at the great London hospital, The Maudsley


    1. I am sure you have seen a lot in your time nursing people with serious and severe mental illnesses. Your input is always valuable. The reality on the ground is that for some people, like my loved one, the meds work partly, but he needs support for daily living which he is not getting. He My took lithium for a time, and then olanzopine. Neither completely quell his manic symptoms, but olanzopine seems to help the psychosis a bit. He needs daily guidance or his life falls apart. We are still basically abandoning people to the streets. It is horrifying that there is still no solution.


      1. Gosh Marylyn , This is so tough. My heart goes out to patients and their families where treatment falls short of working. Some of the consumer movement participants unfortunately have ignored the needs of those who are floundering in the present set up. I feel that books like Madness in the Streets By Virginia Armat and Rael isaacs and No Where to go by E Fuller Torrey tell the real story about what has really happened. To allow people who are really ill fall through the cracks is cruel and irresponsible.

        We must press on and question false narratives that everyone can recover! As with many diseases aiming at stabilization is a better strategy than claiming that everyone can recover. Truth to power must be the order of the day and part of the consumer movement has told a very false narrative and they have got the high ground.


  2. Marvin rightly writes ” The document tries to explain.. (it fails to do so).But psychaitry as practiced not such a long time ago calls for the psychiatrized to rebel.. Moniz the lobotomist got a Nobel prize, and Donald EwenCameron at the Allan Memorial in Montreal conducted experiments on the mentally il for the use of the CIA.. I do not believe their line, but I acknowledge their right to exp;ress themselves.


  3. I think a large part of the difficulties with the mental health system in the first half of the 20th was that there were just not enough dollars for decent mental hospitals. That is absolutely true today too. The state where I live spends most of the money spent on mental health treating individuals who are institutionalized today which is less than a 1,000 individuals. Say there were 500,000 patients in mental hospitals now. The 500,000 individuals would be living in hell holes due to lack of funds. There absolutely is mental illness, drugs can be helpful and re-instiutionalization of the mentally ill would be a disaster for the mentally ill and horrendously expensive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s