News & Stories

Postcards Yield Prize-Winning View into Psychiatric History

In the vintage postcard, the setting looks bucolic and inviting, with its stately brick buildings and velvety green landscaping. But what was behind the public image at places like the State Hospital for the Insane in Napa, California, in the 19th century? 

The question captured the imaginations of Caesar Li and Ashley Myer, third-year College of Medicine students who are also on track to earn Master of Arts degrees in Medical Ethics and Humanities from Northeast Ohio Medical University in 2022.

A poster of their research, titled “The moral treatment model of early modern psychiatric care: Insights from postcards of 19th century psychiatric hospitals,” was one of two entries to win “Best Poster Presentation in Bioethics and Health Humanities” at the National Student Research Forum held virtually May 14 and 15 by the University of Texas Medical Branch Campus in Galveston, Texas. 

Postcards: Yesterday’s text messages or Snapchats

“We were both fascinated by the history of psychiatry and moral treatment after studying psychiatric ethics in our graduate program. When we discovered that the Cummings Center [the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology] at the University of Akron had a large collection of asylum postcards, we realized there was an opportunity for archival work that was very visual and unique,” says Li.

Myer analyzed the postcards for written notes while Li looked for patterns in structures and architecture. 

“Postcards are wonderful historical artifacts that are reminiscent of communicating through text messages or snapchat photos, and I had a lovely time qualifying the data I found. Altogether, we examined hundreds of postcards and dozens of photos, illustrations and reports,” Myer says, adding, “It was eye-opening to see all that the public was exposed to and what was hidden away.”  

The students discovered that the historical context of psychiatric treatment provided perspective on the realities and hardships of mental health care today. The era of so-called moral treatment was a major period of reform that failed because of social pressures and a critical lack of funding, say the two students.

Their research revealed a cautionary tale on several levels: ”The public should be critical of the messages they are exposed to. Lasting reform movements in psychiatric care should be evidence-based, and they require meaningful support to succeed.”

View the poster “The moral treatment model of early modern psychiatric care: Insights from postcards of 19th century psychiatric hospitals.”