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JAMA 100 Years Ago
July 28, 1999

PSYCHIATRY AND SENSATIONALISM.

Author Affiliations
 

Edited by Jennifer Reiling, Editorial Assistant.

JAMA. 1999;282(4):308F. doi:10.1001/jama.282.4.308

"How Shall We Instill Correct Ideas of Insanity into the Public Mind?" is the title of a paper announced to be read before the coming meeting of the British Medical Association. This is a question that remains to be answered here as well as in Great Britain. There is no lack of desire for information, but the only kind that seems to be absorbed is the imperfect and erroneous, and the more erroneous and imperfect the more readily it is apparently absorbed. The problem of how to enlighten the public is therefore a difficult one, even more so than many other medical problems in regard to which the public takes an interest. A description of an asylum will be more readily believed if it is portrayed as conducted on the plan of an ill-managed poorhouse, than if facts are stated as they really are. The same is true as regards insanity itself. There is no statement too extravagant to be accepted by the laity, and even plain truths, plainly told, are too often accepted in a distorted form. There is such an opportunity for sensationalism that newspaper reporters in particular are rarely able to keep their imagination in restraint and the average literature they produce on the subject is about as thoroughly untrustworthy as it can well be. The physician who unguardedly allows himself to be interviewed on any remarkable incident or phase of the subject is liable to have to repent it, and this is well illustrated by a recent occurrence in New York. The Sunday edition of the New York Herald, June 11, contained a long article purporting to give the opinions of Dr. Van Gieson of the New York State Pathological Institute, and his conclusions that the day of asylums is nearly past and that they are to be replaced by psychopathic hospitals which are to treat insanity in its beginnings and thus forestall the necessity of these accumulations of human misery. The article implied the claim for Dr. Van Gieson and his assistants that this great advance would be due to their labors, which were especially illustrated by a case recently under their care and the publication of which is to make a profound sensation in the medical world, and to revolutionize present systems of the treatment of insanity.

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