A sweeping history of American psychiatry—from prisons to hospitals to the lab to the analyst’s couch—by the award-winning author of Madness in Civilization.
For more than two hundred years, disturbances of the mind—the sorts of things that were once called “madness”—have been studied and treated by the medical profession. Mental illness, some insist, is a disease like any other, whose origins can be identified and from which one can be cured. But is this true?
In this masterful account of America’s quest to understand and treat everything from anxiety to psychosis, one of the most provocative thinkers writing about psychiatry today sheds light on its tumultuous past. Desperate Remedies brings together a galaxy of mind doctors working in and out of institutional settings: psychologists and psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, and cognitive behavioral therapists, social reformers and advocates of mental hygiene, as well as patients and their families desperate for relief.
Andrew Scull begins with the birth of the asylum in the reformist zeal of the 1830s and carries us through to the latest drug trials and genetic studies. He carefully reconstructs the rise and fall of state-run mental hospitals to explain why so many of the mentally ill are now on the street and why so many of those whose bodies were experimented on were women. In his compelling closing chapters, he reveals how drug companies expanded their reach to treat a growing catalog of ills, leading to an epidemic of over-prescribing while deliberately concealing debilitating side effects.
Carefully researched and compulsively readable, Desperate Remedies is a definitive account of America’s long battle with mental illness that challenges us to rethink our deepest assumptions about who we are and how we think and feel.
“Brimming with wisdom and brio, this masterful work spans the history of modern psychiatric practice, from the abject horrors of Victorian asylums to the complexities surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness to this day. Exceedingly well-researched, wide-ranging, provocative in its conclusions, and magically compact, it is riveting from start to finish. Mark my words, Desperate Remedies will soon be a classic.”—Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender
“Desperate Remedies is a riveting chronicle of faulty science, false promises, arrogance, greed, and shocking disregard for the wellbeing of patients suffering from mental disorders. An eloquent, meticulously documented, clear-eyed call for change.”—Dirk Wittenborn, author of Pharmakon
“Desperate Remedies is a harrowing, heart-pounding history that will leave you gasping. Andrew Scull vividly transports us to the dismal asylums and experimental operating rooms that haunt psychiatry’s past and then links that tragic era with our prescription-happy present. Dryly witty, but always compassionate, he shines a light on a century of medical mayhem and the horror it inflicted on the innocent. This is a riveting, powerful, and utterly astonishing read.”—Simon Rich, author of Hits and Misses
“An immensely engaging—if often dismaying—account of American psychiatry. Scull impressively balances the social reality that constitutes ‘mental illness’ with the ever-shifting rationales used to explain such unsettling behaviors and emotions by those who have chosen to manage these elusive ills. Desperate Remedies is an important contribution to our understanding of a fundamental and still-contested aspect of human experience.”—Charles Rosenberg, author of The Care of Strangers
“Andrew Scull weighs American psychiatry in the balance and finds it seriously wanting. So this may not be the best introductory text for an aspiring medical student. But it is required reading for anyone who appreciates great writing, insight, and outstanding scholarship—just the kind of people we want doing psychiatry.”—Sir Simon Wessely, King’s College London
About the Author:
Andrew Scull is the author of Madness in Civilization, Hysteria: The Disturbing History, and Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine, among other books. Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego, he won the Roy Porter Medal for lifetime contribution to the history of medicine and the Eric Carlson award for lifetime contributions to the history of psychiatry. He has contributed to many documentaries, including PBS’s Mysteries of Mental Illness (June 2021) and The Lobotomist. He blogs for Psychology Today and Mad in America and reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. He has written for The Atlantic, Scientific American, the Paris Review, the Wall Street Journal, and The Nation, among others.