In the last years of the 18th century, Quakers in York, England, acting in rebellion against the harsh ministrations of English mad doctors, developed a form of care known as “moral therapy.” The medical wisdom at the time was that the mad, by virtue of having lost their reason, had descended to the level of “brutes, but the Quakers in York thought differently: They declared that the “mad” were “brethren” and should be treated as such. The Quakers in York built a small retreat in the countryside, where the mad were given shelter and food, and treated with gentleness and kindness. In this manner, the Quakers hoped to “assist nature” in helping the mad get well. They believed that their mad brethren had a God-given inner capacity for regaining self-control and reason, and thus their therapeutic challenge was to provide a gentle environment that could best promote such healing.
In fairly short order, the Quakers in York reported that this care was proving to be quite successful, and in the first decades of the 19th century, Quakers in the United States built a number of such small retreats, in the countryside outside Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford and other cities. The patients were encouraged to garden, exercise, take long walks, and engage in social activities. And this therapy worked. Modern historians who have reviewed the records of these retreats have determined that more than half of the newly insane would be discharged within three years. Moreover, a long-term study of 984 patients discharged from Worcester Asylum in this period found that 58% remained well throughout their lives.
Today, we often hear of how our society is discovering that some people can “recover” from mental illness, as if this is an extraordinary finding. If the Quakers from the early 19th century could hear such pronouncements, they would undoubtedly furrow their brows and wonder, this is considered new?