Friday, September 11, 2015

Oh! How Shocking!

Construction of the Female Chronic Building. June 28, 1929. Dominion Photo Co. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives

Construction of the powerhouse at Essondale. March 6, 1925

The Nurse's Home at Essondale. Stride Studios, New Westminster. Apr. 23, 1929

Colony Farm, Essondale. 1914 taken by W.J. Moore Photo

Until the 1930s, there wasn't many ways to treat those with mental illness. A sanctuary - an asylum - provided a safe, quiet environment away from the stresses of society. Work therapy was another method of treatment commonly used at Essondale and other mental institutions. But the thirties brought new methods to treat the patients - drugs, electro convulsive (shock) treatments and surgery.

Insulin shock treatment and metrazol convulsive therapy were introduced at Essondale and primarily used to treat those with schizophrenia. High doses of insulin were injected into a patient causing convulsions - insulin shock therapy. For the metrazol convulsive therapy, injections of a chemical that caused convulsions was injected into the schizophrenic. These treatments were in use for about ten years until electro convulsive therapy replaced them. Insulin coma therapy remained in use for many years later.

At the end of the 1930s, Canada was involved with World War II. Many of Essondale's staff joined the armed forces and the hospital received a wave of war-shocked veterans. Once again, Essondale was overcrowded as the population rose to 4,100. However, due to the war and the depression, there was no building on the grounds.

Keeping trained nurses was difficult as they followed their patriotic duty and joined the war effort. So there was many untrained nurses. In 1942, there were three students to one graduate nurse - more than 100 nurses quit that year. At one point, more than half the staff lacked experience and training in hospital work and psychiatric care.

In an attempt to correct this, Essondale hired aides to help. The educational requirement for an aide was Grade 9. The nursing shortage was somewhat relieved when Essondale allowed the hiring of married women. Essondale, like many employers of the time, thought that women should leave the workforce and become homemakers after marriage. The war time shortage changed that attitude.

The nursing shortage also had an impact on the Training School. At times, there were around 100 student nurses working the wards but they had to wait a year or more for formal instruction.

Since the late 19th century, men had played an important role in caring for the mentally ill. They were known as the 'keepers'. The students at Essondale's Training School were mainly female. Nine male students attended the school between 1937 to 1942.

In 1945, special courses were introduced for male Charge Attendants, which lead to a certificate of Psychiatric Nursing. Student education in a wide number of disciplines remained an important part of the hospital's operations.

Thanks to the PDF, Riverview, A Legacy of Care and Compassion for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill


  1. I think most of those therapies were ecoerimental at best. I wouldn't have wanted any of those methods. Shock therapy was supposed to help you forget whatever trauma you had experienced but didn't always work. Then they came out with anti-psychotic meds and jf taken did wonders. Glad the psychological field has improved since then. Glad I didn't live back then.

    1. The insulin cure is what makes me cringe. Knowing how insulin affects the body, that was just setting the people up for further health problems.

    2. I was on insulin for a couple of years, and I think it contributed to my weight issues. Luckily, my blood sugars have stabilized ot where I only need a pill and Victoza.

      John Hardin

    3. Insulin does lead to weight gain - it stores fat. Towards the end of my father's life, he wasn't eating a lot but they were giving him more and more insulin to control the blood sugar levels and he was pretty big. Until the very end when he became frailer.

  2. Karen, shock treatment is alive and well even today. I worked on a psych. ward in 1972 and they gave ECT to a 14 year old back then. I've written a novel, not yet published, that was inspired by my work on that ward. I'm hoping to get it out there this fall or early spring.

    Essondale became Riverview. My husband worked there a bit as a psycho-geriatric social worker in the 1980s to 1990s.