Commentary-Exploring Mental Illness and Battling Her Own

Commentary-Exploring Mental Illness and Battling Her Own
The New York Times
Lucy Freeman, in 1951, covered mental health for The New York Times
while also struggling with her own mental illness.
She died in late 2004.
Lucy Freeman, in 1951, covered mental health for The New York Times
while also struggling with her own mental illness.
Lucy Freeman, who died at the end of 2004, thought that there was nothing wrong with being crazy.

Published: January 31, 2006
Lucy Freeman, in 1951, covered mental health for The New York Times while also struggling with her own mental illness. She died in late 2004.

As a reporter for The New York Times in the 1940’s and 50’s she worked to remove the stigma of mental illness, even writing a revealing book that chronicled her own psychoanalysis.

Ms. Freeman’s efforts recall a heady time in the history of psychiatry, when two competing groups, the followers of Sigmund Freud and those who favored physical manipulation of the brain, each believed it had found a “cure” for mental illness. We know more today, but all the answers are not in.

Ms. Freeman was born in 1916, the daughter of Lawrence Greenbaum, a prominent New York lawyer, and his wife, Sylvia. In 1940, after graduating from Bennington College, she became one of the few women on the reporting staff of The Times. Seven years later, she married William Freeman, an editor.

But Ms. Freeman had a troubled personal life. As she said in her 1951 book “Fight Against Fears,” she was angry, unhappy and unable to sleep. She also had a series of ailments, including sinus headaches.

That Ms. Freeman turned to a psychoanalyst was not surprising. The teachings of Freud, who believed that emotional problems in adulthood resulted from unresolved childhood conflicts, were at the height of popularity then, and his solution was psychoanalysis — spending years revisiting one’s life history with a trained therapist.

Still, Ms. Freeman’s family and friends were displeased with her decision to go into analysis, responding, she said, with “skepticism, jeers and outright disapproval.”

One acquaintance told her, “You’re crazy if you go to a psychiatrist.”

This type of response stemmed from the prevailing beliefs of the era, which viewed mental illness scornfully and its victims as deviants. Compounding this stereotype was the reliance on imposing state hospitals, like the one depicted in the 1948 Hollywood film “The Snake Pit,” to house people with severe schizophrenia or depression.

In truth, many psychiatrists were trying to convert such institutions from overcrowded, custodial facilities to state-of-the-art medical centers. Believing that mental illness stemmed from organic problems within the brain, psychiatrists had devised a series of treatments, including electroshock therapy and lobotomy.

It was these advances that Ms. Freeman relentlessly publicized as The Times’s reporter on mental health. Writing scores of articles like “Action Now Urged on Mental Cases” and “State Mental Care Entering New Era,” she willingly blurred the roles of reporter and advocate.

But Ms. Freeman’s heart lay in promoting psychoanalysis, which she believed had greatly improved her own condition, most likely a severe form of neurosis. By helping her confront her childhood conflicts, which included hating her mother, having sexual feelings for her father and envying her siblings, her analyst, she said, had cured her headaches and eased her psychological pain. Psychoanalysis, she wrote, “is part of today’s struggle for survival.”

Ms. Freeman and her analyst saw unexplored childhood and adult fears as the cause of mental illness — even of psychotic conditions like schizophrenia. As she wrote, fear had “incited the anger, the hatred, the guilt” and thus “split me into pieces.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this emphasis on fear had great currency during the cold war, leading former mental patients to start “Fight Against Fear” clubs across the nation.

From our modern perspective, viewing fear as the cause of most mental illnesses seems quite outdated. Even Freud had intended that only neurotics, as opposed to people with more severe diseases, explore their childhood conflicts.

Moreover, recent studies have demonstrated that disorders like schizophrenia have a genetic basis and result from chemical abnormalities in the brain.

While lobotomy has been abandoned, electroshock therapy is still used to treat depression. And over the last 50 years, scientists have developed numerous effective medications to treat psychosis and other symptoms of mental illness.

Meanwhile, the grand claims made by Ms. Freeman and others for psychoanalysis have been challenged. Researchers argue that the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, like other medical interventions, needs further validation through studies.

Lucy Freeman wanted to hear none of this. According to her niece, Dale Schroedel, she remained “absolutely devoted and committed to Freud even when he became archaic.”

Many therapists still agree with Ms. Freeman. Analysis, and its less intensive cousin, psychotherapy, remain a cornerstone of psychiatric practice.

Ms. Freeman eventually wrote 78 books, many of them addressing the connection of emotions and health.

In so doing, she further fought the stigma that plagued her and others suffering from mental illness. “By saving them,” she wrote, “in some way I also saved myself.”

Barron H. Lerner teaches medicine and public health at Columbia University.

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The New York Times

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