"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Mental Illness


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill, and this is A Quaker's View. In this column, we will consider efforts Friends have made to care for the mentally ill.

For the most part, we human beings have done a shameful job of caring for our mentally ill brothers and sisters. Our fears have prompted us to incarcerate the mentally ill rather than care for them.

Auguste Jorns, a German historian, offers this description of life in a 17th Century mental hospital: inmates were "treated as wild beasts, and were customarily exhibited to visitors as curiosities." Jorns, who wrote, The Quakers as Pioneers in Social Work, adds, "The idea that those who are mentally ill are merely sick, and are in many cases curable, is of thoroughly modern origin. In the Middle Ages they were considered on a par with criminals and were... even subjected at times to capital punishment."

The very first Friends were unsatisfied with the care their own mentally ill received at the hands of others. In 1671, a call went out: "Friends do seek some place convenient in or about the city [of London] wherein they may put any person that may be distracted or troubled in mind, so that they may not be put amongst the people of the world or run about the streets."

Over the next 100 years, Friends tried twice to establish mental hospitals. Both efforts failed. Then, in 1796, Friends opened a new facility in York, England. The new center was named, "the Retreat," and it revolutionized the care of the mentally ill all over Europe and America.

Rather than bleeding and starving the otherwise passive patients (as was the general practice at this time), an effort was made to stimulate the patients' minds.

Another important innovation had to do with the use of chains. Even King George III was chained when he became mentally ill. The Quakers, however, refused to fetter people in their care.

The Retreat employed a much larger staff than other institutions of similar size. In other hospitals, patients could be locked in place and simply forgotten. Friends wanted to provide attentive care. The Quaker's method was not only more humane, it produced more successful results.

Once, a man was brought to the Retreat in chains. Because he was so large physically, he had been kept fettered constantly. Even his clothes were changed without removing his manacles. When he was placed in the care of Friends, he was set free. As Jorns reports it: "When excited and vociferous, the superintendent went to his room and sat quietly beside him. After a period of increased irritation, the violent excitement subsided, and he would listen with attention to the persuasions and arguments of his friendly visitor."

A Quaker historian of the Retreat later asked a very pertinent question: "Can it be doubted that in this case the disease had been greatly exasperated by the mode of management, or that the subsequent kind treatment had a great tendency to promote his recovery?"

Chains, "chemical restraints," bloodlettings and electric shocks treat the patient as an object to be changed. These are things we impose from the outside in order to establish order on the disordered mind of the mentally ill. The Quaker method of care, not surprisingly, was to reach inside -- to speak to that of God in the person needing care.

Here are some questions to consider:

1. Our desire to impose order may be at odds with a mentally ill person's desire to act in ways that seem odd or even dangerous. Is there ever a point when we are justified in imposing control from the outside?

2. In the popular media, mentally ill people are often portrayed as dangerous. How might we as a meeting challenge this perception in ourselves and in society at large?

3. What do you think about the Quaker superintendent who "sat quietly" beside the agitated man? If the Friend had been injured, should he have tried this approach again?