Saskatchewan

3 ways the Weyburn Mental Hospital operated before 1940 that would be scandalous today

Dug up archives are helping to piece together a picture of life at the Weyburn Mental Hospital. The hospital is this year's topic of discussion for Archives Week.

The treatment of mentally ill patients has changed dramatically in the past century

Dug up archives are helping to piece together a picture of life at the Weyburn Mental Hospital. The hospital is this year's topic of discussion for Archives Week. 

Letters and writings about the institution will be presented at Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 7:00 p.m.

The hospital opened in 1921 and went through many changes until the 1960s. Over the years, experimental treatment included the use of LSD and electroshock therapy. 

Dr. Patterson, who worked at Saskatchewan Hospital in Weyburn, interviewing a nurse, May 1958. (Saskatchewan Archives)

Alex Deighton, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, is studying the years 1921 to 1939. He said that people were celebrating the hospital during the interwar period. Many saw it as an economic benefit, as well as a symbol of British civilization, during a time when people were nervous about non-Anglo immigration. 

Here are three ways the Weyburn Mental Hospital operated before 1940 that would be scandalous today:

1) The patients had to work full time jobs at the hospital

Central to hospital life was the practice of "work therapy." Patients had to work full time hours at the hospital. When Deighton started studying this period of the hospital, this was one part of history that shocked him. 

Deighton made some calculations. "If we consider that patients were full time workers, and look at them next to actual paid employees, patients were making up 90 per cent of the hospital workforce at times."

At the beginning of the 1920s, patients only made up about 70 per cent of the workforce. Deighton said this increased over time as the hospital administration tried to cut costs.

"The main feature of patient life was work," he said.

These jobs were thought to give patients a structured way of life and cure them of their mental illness. 

2) Thousands of people came every year to tour Weyburn and the hospital

"Hospital tourism" caught on in the 1920s. Deighton said it helped to create a separation between the hospital patients and the actual public. 

"You'd think that would maybe get them to understand the patient experience more, bringing them closer to the patient," said Deighton. "Most of these patients were working outside during the day, and the people touring the hospitals toured a mostly empty building."

3) Continuous baths were used as treatment

Since the patients spent so many hours at work, Deighton said there wasn't a lot of treatment. One treatment that was used was hydrotherapy. Wet packs and long baths were meant to calm patients' nerves. 

Warm water or very cold water was used, and this was standard asylum practice.

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