I recently had the pleasure of talking to Deborah Doroshow about her new book, Emotionally Disturbed: A History of Caring for America’s Troubled Children, which explores the development of Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs) for “emotionally disturbed” children. The book does a masterful job of explaining how this new category of mental illness came into being and how it related to the emerging field of child psychiatry, as well as to broader changes in psychiatric theory and practice itself. I was interested in how Doroshow, who holds an MD from Harvard Medical School and is attending physician in internal medicine and oncology at Mount Sinai, came to the history of psychiatry.
Debbie: Actually my interest in the history of psychiatry predates my move into medicine. As an undergrad I had the great pleasure of taking a course called “Madness and medicine: themes in the history of psychiatry” by the amazing Anne Harrington, who has been a major influence on me ever since. My senior honors thesis was on the use of insulin coma therapy, and I was mentored by Jeremy Greene. He treated me like a graduate student, with graduate student expectations, and I published part of my thesis as an article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.
In that project, and since, I’ve been concerned with thinking about the lived experience of mental health treatments, the way that therapeutics change over time, how that’s different over time or place, an ethnographic approach really…then I went to graduate school between the 3rd and 4th year of medical school and did some directed readings with Cindy Connolly. I was interested in child psychiatry because I’d never really encountered the history of children’s health before, so my final project with Cindy was a historiographic essay on child psychiatry. There was very little scholarship in that area, mostly about child guidance. What I noticed was that these children were troubled but not seriously ill — so I wondered where the more troubled children were.