Deep Sleep Treatment and Sedation

Sleeping treatments, such as prolonged narcosis, would, it was hoped, relax the overstimulated brain and so cure the patient from their mental illness. It was introduced by Jakob Kläsi who used somnifaine, a strong soporific, erroneously believed to be much safer than the earlier sleep-inducing drugs (Windholz & Witherspoon, 1993). The treatment was first used in the DCMH in 1934. Patients received and injection of 2cc of somnifaine and slept for about five consecutive hours. Two to three injections were given to patients on several consecutive days. Although the use of deep-sleep therapies declined in the DCMH in the late 1930s – possibly owing to a combination of failing to fulfil the ambitious hopes placed on this kind of treatment as well as other promising treatments being discovered (Slater, 1975), former staff remember that ‘sleep cures [were] the only treatment we had’ . In 1941, somnifaine treatment ‘[was still] occasionally used in very excited patients and has given quite good results’ (Medical Superintendent’s Annual Report, 1941), and remained in use for very excited patients unsuitable for electro-convulsive therapy.

While deep-sleep treatment implied the administration of a strong sedative with a particular curative function in mind, general sedation of patients, particularly during the night, was common, indubitably facilitated through the advent of barbiturates. Gardenal, Veronal, Medinal, Phenobarbital, Amytal, Seconal, Luminal, Nembutal, Tuinal, Pentothal and Brietal – all synthesised during the first three decades of the 20th century – were widely used in Devon, primarily for night sedation. These drugs were considered much safer than the opiates and bromides used previously and by the 1930s and 1940s they had become so popular that they were later compared to benzodiazepines (Hollister, 1983) – with regard to their sedative characteristics, as well as their risks of dependency and overdose.