In 1950, a person who was behaving oddly stood a good chance of being hospitalized. It might be for observation for a few days or a few weeks. If the doctors decided that this person was mentally ill, they would be committed, perhaps for a few months, perhaps longer. Hospital space was always at a premium, so generally, if someone was kept, there was a reason for it. The notion that large numbers of sane people were kept for no reason just has not survived my research efforts.
I will not claim that the public mental hospitals back then were wonderful places. They were chronically underfunded from the 1930s through the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, conditions in some were the shame of civilized people everywhere. (Ken Kesey wrote the novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest after taking LSD and going to work at a mental hospital, and the film by that name is not a documentary.) But it did mean that many people who were mentally ill were either locked up (where they did not have access to guns, knives, or gasoline) or at least not sleeping on a park bench, catching pneumonia.
A large fraction of the “homeless” population are people who in earlier times would have had “homes,” though little or no freedom. But it’s not clear the degree to which people who are slaves to the roiling and chaotic chemical impulses of their brains can be said to be free, either, and some percentage of them endanger the rest of us, as we saw. But speaking as someone with a history of this in his family, it’s a very tough problem.
[Tuesday morning update]
“Politically incorrect” thoughts from Dr. Helen.