Dr. Erika Dyck
Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine
The Big Question
Attitudes towards mental health in Saskatchewan and Alberta have changed dramatically in the last century regarding reproductive rights and the place of the people considered mentally challenged within society.
In the not-too-distant past, those individuals deemed mentally “unfit” were separated from society in institutions. In the name of protecting society, nearly 4,000 individuals were even sterilized in Alberta to prevent them from having children: a policy known as eugenics.
Erika Dyck is examining the history of eugenics in Western Canada, with a particular focus on the legislated program in Alberta and its impact on individuals who came under the scrutiny of the Eugenics Board. Her work promises to help create a fuller history and understanding of mental health in Canada.
After World War II, Saskatchewan and Alberta were quite similar in terms of economics, demographics, and influx of immigration. Yet provincial attitudes towards treatment of mental health were quite different. Dyck focuses on Alberta’s controversial eugenics program, something Saskatchewan never pursued.
In Saskatchewan, a large number of detractors prevented a eugenics policy. In contrast, two different governments in Alberta supported legislation that allowed the policy to continue for decades. Alberta’s eugenics program for the mentally ill was the only one in the world after the Holocaust that removed the need for informed consent.
“I don’t think you can argue that’s a progressive move,” Dyck says “In some ways I think that comes from a lack of debate, of public discourse.”
The study of institutionalization also holds promise for informing current policies. Dyck has found that emerging health care reforms in Saskatchewan in the 1940s led to new attitudes.
“A number of researchers began to start thinking about different, more creative ways of looking at the institution on a temporary basis. They began to view it as more of a hospital than an end point of palliative care,” she says.
This change in practice from patient “storage” to treatment was just a first step. As these “storage sites” began to close, the community became more involved in the treatment of mental health.
“I certainly see the closure of the hospital as being a starting point rather than an end point in the much broader history of the mental health system.”
Closing mental hospitals and asylums brought new problems such as a lack of sheltered housing and the offloading of psychiatric care to general practitioners. But there have also been benefits. Health activism has become more prevalent. Focus has been drawn to the political rights of former and current patients through lobbying by patient groups, survivor groups, and family groups. This includes rights to care but also rights for patients to make their own decisions.
The study of the history of eugenics and moving mentally ill people out of asylums can help to shed light on current policies and show how they can be better developed to increase the quality of treatment.
Dyck explains that this work contributes to a deeper understanding of citizenship, reproductive rights, feminism, and our mental health care system. It also contributes to a deeper understanding of the experience of the mentally ill.
“I think by comparing the social, cultural, and medicinal treatments that were available within an institutional setting with the treatments patients are now facing, we can generate a lot of insight into how these things have improved or, in some cases, worsened.”