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The rest cure was a treatment for what was deemed hysteria in women. It had great popularity in the 19th century as a way to treat women with mental illnesses that might later be termed generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. It might also be applied to women of the upper classes who were simply exhausted by the chores of raising children, overseeing large households, or who were suffering postpartum depression after the birth of a child.
Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell developed the rest cure. He essentially imprisoned women for up to two months, and gave them little contact with the outside world. In the first few weeks, women were not allowed engage their minds by reading or performing small activities. Most were even not allowed to roll over in their beds, suggesting that they may have been restrained. Often, according to Dr. Mitchell, by the fifth or sixth day, most women became “tractable,” and did not resist the imposed monotony. This statement suggests that many women probably fought this treatment during initial days of imprisonment.
Mitchell clearly saw some success with his treatment, which also included daily massage, and probably clitoral stimulation, as was common for the treatment of hysteria. It is fair to say, that most women today would evaluate the rest cure as a horrible, punishment inflicted on women who were possibly merely anxious, or were suffering from a mental illness. Since husbands frequently were allowed to make decisions regarding their wives, the perception of the husband could determine whether a woman would endure such a treatment. It is small wonder that many women saw cooperation as a means toward escaping from Mitchell’s cure.
One of the most interesting indictments of the rest cure is the fictional piece, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The work describes from first person perspective the gradual insanity of a woman undergoing this treatment. Gilman even sent a copy to Dr. Mitchell, who did not respond. Gilman’s central character is actually driven insane by the treatment that is supposed to restore her sanity. Her loneliness and her total separation from her family are dwelt on, and make an effective argument against this cure.
However, Gilman errs because the rest cure was probably not likely to cause insanity. Its application might worsen the condition of someone with a mild to moderate psychological problem. Today, even institutionalization of people with mental illnesses focuses not on solitude but on integrating the ill person into regular activities such as daily group therapy, classes on coping strategies, and daily activities like therapeutic art.
Dr. Mitchell’s treatment may also be classed as extraordinarily sexist, since the rest cure was almost always applied to women. Since women were thought by many to be very different than men, and also guided by their hormones, this treatment was supposed to be applied to what were considered diseases of the female mind. The “cure” was directed at females due to a basic lack of understanding regarding women. It was also almost always applied to women of middle to upper classes, since working women were thought to be sturdier and less susceptible to hysteria.
With the advent of therapy as developed by Freud, Jung and Adler, the rest cure finally sank into obscurity as bad medicine. Greater understanding of hormonal function in women helped to develop treatments for both men and women. Current understanding of the chemical action of the brain has also helped develop medications that can significantly allay anxiety or major depression. Mitchell’s rest cure is now thought by many to have been yet another violation of women's rights during a time when they were unable to be their own advocates for equal treatment by members of the medical community.