Bizarre handcuff treatment for mental patients in the 1950’s

December 16, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

Back in the 1970s, when I was an undergrad student at the University of Missouri, I took a psychology course that required me to interview someone who worked in the mental health field.  A nurse working at the Missouri State Mental Hospital (on Arsenal Street in the City of St. Louis) graciously agreed to talk with me.

The woman (her name now escapes me) told me that she previously worked as a nurse at a mental hospital in Canada, back in the 1950s.  Many people don’t realize that in the 1950s there were very few drugs available for doctors to prescribe for people with serious mental illness.  Therefore, the hospitals often served as places where people with “mental illness” stayed for their own protection or to protect society from them.  Protecting these patients was often a big challenge for the mental hospital staffs.

The nurse I interviewed told me about two categories of patients that were especially challenging.  The “catatonics” were severely depressed, to such an extent that they literally stopped getting out of bed.  In fact, they lay in bed in the same position for such long periods that they were at risk for developing dangerous infectious bedsores.  Another category of challenging patients were the manics, people who “raced up and down the halls” knocking things over and running into other people.

The nurse told me about the imaginative “solution” to dealing with these two types of patients at her hospital.  The professional staff took one catatonic patient and one manic patient and paired them up, connecting them with handcuffs.  The nurse was dead serious as she told me this story.  She explained that the manic patient kept the catatonic patient on the move, thereby lessening the risk of bedsores.  On the other hand, the catatonic patient slowed down the manic patient, thereby lessening the risk of collisions in the hallways.  She told me that this handcuff technique was used on a regular basis at her hospital and that it was a “successful” technique.

I can’t imagine how frustrating this situation must have been for the patients.  I can only hope that none of the patients injured each other (or killed each other) out of frustration.  On the other hand, it must of been incredibly challenging for the hospital staff to deal with these serious types of mental illnesses without any of the psychoactive prescription drugs now available. 

I haven’t discussed in this interview with anyone else who worked in a mental hospital in the 1950s, but I would be interested in knowing whether the “handcuff technique” was a widespread practice, or whether it was simply a technique used by the Canadian hospital where the nurse I interviewed worked.

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Category: Medicine, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dana says:

    Id refuse to send anyone there…myself esp. Id cause trouble and try to burn the joint down which is what they should do to those dumps. Ive seen inside of them! No better than jail.

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