The History of Health Insurance and Mental Illness

The historical branches of German social insurance

The successful passage of health insurance reform legislation in the United States moves me to wonder about the extent to which scholars have looked into the role of health insurance in mental health care.  About ten years ago, a number of us historians examined the impact of mental illness on social insurance in Germany around the years 1880-1930.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the rise of shellshock in World War I and the killing of 200,000 psychiatric patients by the Nazis under their T-4 program provided the backdrop and inspiration for much of this research.   In my own study of disability within early German social insurance (Making Security Social), I found that providing health care benefits to those suffering from work-related nervous illnesses prompted a vocal, organized, and persistent backlash from those who contended that the system was only rewarding malingering.  The fact that some claimants contended that their nervous symptoms were caused, not by a factory accident, but rather by the torturous process of applying for a pension itself only seemed to confirm the view that social insurance and mental illness did not mix well.   In fact by the 1920s and 1930s, “pension neuroses” – as they were called – were publicly pilloried by conservatives, liberals, and the Nazis as emblematic of a social insurance system that bred whining and undermined productivity and masculinity.  Interestingly enough, however, the Nazis found it politically impossible to dismantle the social insurance system, despite the fact that many reformers in their party wished to do so.  So, there is certainly historical evidence indicating that, indeed, insurance systems do create new constituencies that provide powerful support for the system’s continuation.

So, I have some questions for others.  Are there good historical studies out there (articles or monographs) which examine insurance’s impact on mental illness and mental health and vice versa?  What role has health insurance played in reinforcing or undermining professional, institutional, and social trends and practices?  For instance, to what extent was social insurance responsible for the post-World War II boom in psychotherapeutic professionals and services?  What role have pharmaceutical companies played in health insurance systems affecting mental health across the globe?  What effects did health insurance schemes have on the process widely known as deinstitutionalization?  Please post any responses on the blog.


New Issue of Psychiatrie, sciences humaines, neurosciences

The latest issue of Psychiatrie, sciences humaines, neurosciences is dedicated to psychiatry in a colonial context. One article is specifically dedicated to the history of the notion of obsession in Germany.

Psychiatrie au-delà du Rhin: obsessions et compulsions dans la psychiatrie de langue allemande by M. Géraud (Centre hospitalier Charles-Perrens, Bordeaux). The abstract reads:

The notion of obsession was built late in France. The same is true in German-speaking countries (first occurring in 1867). But obsessional disorders have kept a more autonomous nosographic position in these latter countries than in France, where obsession has long been connected with the idea of degeneration, which is not given emphasis in Germany. Mentioned for the first time by Krafft-Ebing in 1867 and by Griesinger in 1868, obsession (Zwangsvorstellung) has been the subject of an exemplary clinical description by Westphal, in 1877, who defined it as an autonomous pathology radically different to “paranoia” (Verrücktheit) and melancholia; according to him, obsessions never change into delusions. This field has varied considerably in its symptomatic area: some authors going so far as to introduce the idea of obsession, sensations, feelings, impulses, and actions; obsession, according to Löwenfeld, encompass the intellectual, emotional, and motor functional spheres. Other authors, notably Bumke, keep to a more strictly defined area, within the direction defined by Westphal. Fundamental emotional disorders are either rejected or identified with anxiety. Connections with other illnesses have given rise to a number of concepts. Considered autonomous by Westphal and Bumke, obsessional symptomatology has been thought of, by other authors as primary or secondary to other pathologies, originating in melancholia or changing into it. The nosographic position varies. Either obsession is considered an autonomous illness or it is connected to other pathologies (neurasthenia, degeneration, Verrücktheit). Connections with other illnesses are dominated by relationships to melancholia; connections to paranoia are much more problematic; those with hysteria are seldom mentioned. After setting up frameworks for manic-depressive psychosis and schizophrenia (Kraepelin, Bleuler) and for hysteric neurosis (Freud), the nosographic position of obsessions, which have become “obsessional neurosis”, varies according to these pathologies and becomes complex. Kraepelin has it as an anxiety disorder connected to phobias but links some obsessions with “manic-depressive insanity”. The followers of Kraepelin insist on the connection with manic-depressive illness. Bleuler connects the obsessions to schizophrenia-schizothymia. These relations between obsession and schizophrenia give rise to abundant literature. Their links are located at a psychopathological level (“Spaltung,” the defense, slowing down, repairing and recovery from schizophrenia), at a symptomatological level (pedantry-mannerism, schizophrenic autism-closed aspect of the obsessed, their motor disorders-catatonia), or at a clinical level (obsession-schizophrenia association). Obsessions are considered by other authors as personality disorders. Notably by Kretschmer (sensitive reaction) or by Schneider as a psychopathic personality: anancastics, second subgroup of the self uncertain psychopaths. As for the anthropological-existential point of view, it tackles the patient with obsessive disorders in his or her totality and analyses the transcendental constitution of his or her world.

New exhibition at the Prinzhorn Museum (Heidelberg)

Recently, the Prinzhorn Collection was able to acquire with the help of the Brass foundation a unique picture series of 44 drawings. The artist, Wilhelm Werner (1898-1940), lived since 1919 in the Werneck asylum. He drew the images between 1934 and 1938, after his forced sterilisation. He transformed the experience of the degrading intervention into a series of impressively imaginative and original pictures. Two years later Werner became a victim of the Nazi “euthanasia” programme. His series of drawings is shown for the first time at the Prinzhorn Collection from the 17th of March.

Anne Cottebrune on Franz Josef Kallmann

In the latest number of the German journal Medizinhistorisches Journal, Anne Cottebrune publishes an article on the trajectory of Franz Josef Kallmann who was one of the founding fathers of psychiatric genetics.

“The founding of the German Research Institute for Psychiatry and its Genealogic-Demographic Department (Genealogisch-Demographische Abteilung; GDA) in 1918 gave the world the first institutional platform for the field of psychiatric genetics. The years between the two World Wars saw the GDA grow in importance with much international respect. The close collaboration between the GDA’s protagonist Ernst Rüdin and the National Socialist regime was certainly not an inhibiting factor for the worldwide recognition of the eugenic research conducted in Munich. Around the mid-1930s, the German psychiatrist émigré Franz Josef Kallmann brought the field of study which had been put into practice in Munich to the United States. He fought an uphill battle to be accepted by the North American scientific community, but finally he was able to establish himself as the main researcher in the field of psychiatric genetics. Interestingly enough, the fact that his kind of research had been heavily supported by the National Socialist regime was not a barrier to his acceptance. The fact that it took him a long time to establish the field of eugenics in the USA is better explained by the psychoanalytic research methods at the time, which gave hereditary transmission short shrift. At the New York State Psychiatric Institute he was able to continue his research, including the examination of race-hygienic motifs, where he designed a research program that was directly based on concepts and methods from Ernst Rüdin’s team of researchers in Munich. The only deviation from the original research was in terms of the use of eugenic prophylaxis where he aligned his research in the context of North American democracy in the post-war era. However, the eugenic goal of elimination of certain categories of peoples remained unchanged.”

This summary and more can be found here.