I’ve just found a remarkable documentary on YouTube from a 1957 BBC series called ‘The Hurt Mind’. The programme attempts to de-stigmatise mental health for the public but also documents some of the most controversial treatments in the history of psychiatry.
The programme was an edition of a then pioneering five-part BBC series on mental health and this was the episode that specifically dealt with ‘physical treatments’ – that is, treatments which directly affect the brain, such as ECT, leucotomy, insulin coma therapy and abreaction.
This was before the days when pills were widely used in psychiatry – there were no antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilisers and the only tranquilisers were heavyweight barbiturates, as benzodiazapines had yet to become available.
The psychiatrists on the programme are not named, but if I’m not mistaken, the main interviewee is William Sargant, who has a bit of sinister reputation for his enthusiasm for brain altering treatments, his interest in ‘brain washing’, and rumours he was funded by the CIA – as we’ve discussed previously.
Sargant literally wrote the book on physical treatments (titled An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry) and the programme presents them in the most biased possible light, in line with Sargant’s enthusiasms, by dismissing side-effects and selectively presenting single cases of recovered happy patients.
For those more familiar with the frontal lobotomy – popularised by American surgeon Walter Freeman, which involved hammering an ice pick under the orbits of the eyes – you’ll notice that the British version of the operation, the leucotomy, was substantially different in its approach and involved drilling small holes in the skull.
The programme also depicts abreaction, where a patient with a post-traumatic condition is given a drug – often barbiturate, or, in this case, ether – and encouraged to talk about the difficult event.
The procedure was based on the Freudian notion that emotional pain can be repressed and can ‘build up’ and cause difficulties in other areas – although a drug can be used to help break down the defences and releases the emotion in a healthy catharsis.
I suspect that the Billy Bunter-like psychiatrist who discusses and demonstrates abreaction is Eliot Slater, although I have no idea of the identity of the bespectacled doctor who discusses leucotomy (do leave a comment if you know).
The programme is classic post-war BBC: chaps with posh accents talk to cor blimey guv’ner commoners, and there are plenty uncomfortable pauses and a shaky set. As a piece of history, though, it is fascinating.
It also turns out that BBC and the Maudsley Hospital attempted to see how effective the programme was in educating the public and published a brief article in the British Medical Journal which analysed the sorts of letters that got sent in by viewers.
Interestingly, William Sargant wrote to the publication saying that he was a medical adviser to the series and had “on rare occasions appeared anonymously on such programmes” and defended how even-handed it was.
Regardless of your interest in the characters, however, the video is a rare insight into how these treatments were actually carried out.