Episode 22. The Rest Cure: Prescribed Torture?

When you go to the doctor with a psychiatric concern, you would expect them to hear you out and find the treatment regimen that is right for you. But in 1800s Victorian America, this wasn’t exactly the case. Neurologist Dr. Mitchell created the “Rest Cure” for his patients that required women to lay completely still for almost two straight months. A patient undergoing this treatment wasn’t allowed to move a single muscle, feed themselves, or stand up to use the bathroom. After a while, this treatment slowly starts to look a little like torture even. Join us in this episode to learn the ins and outs of the rest cure, what a patient went through during this treatment, and how it was a reflection of medical thought at the time. After discussing this cure, we speak at length about the idea of a ‘rest cure’ in modern times, and how resting can be either beneficial or dismissive in medicine today. 

Feminist Corner:

Time and time again we see patient’s entire health attributed to their uterus and reproductive health, which is interesting because today, so many women use their OB/GYN as their primary care provider. Do you think this idea of reproductive health encompassing all (or part of) a women’s health is still relevant today?

Patients who face chronic illness and chronic fatigue today are often told ‘just rest, go home’ as treatment for their condition, as if their symptoms are not real or they are just overworked. How does this concept today relate to the rest cure? Should we be rethinking how we tell patients to rest?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

In this episode we are talking about the Rest Cure, a treatment created by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell in the 1860s. But what even is the rest cure?  Well imagine trying to lay completely still without using a single muscle for 6 -12 weeks straight in order to cure your psychological ailments. But what the heck? What ailments would this even cure?

In the 1800’s Victorian America, neurasthenia was a disease used to describe the depressive and anxious symptoms experienced by men and women in a newly industrialized nation. When men were diagnosed they were prescribed a trip out west to get in touch with their man-ly side, do physical activity, camp, and bond with others. However, the recommended treatment was MUCH different for women.

For a woman receiving the rest cure, she was instructed to give up her autonomy to the male physician and allow the physicians and nurses to do what was needed. The woman could not sit up or turn over without assistance or permission. Nurses would complete all the daily tasks such as moving muscles, feeding, changing, cleaning. Literally every step. But it wasn’t all pleasant. Women were subject to treatment that no patient should ever receive, and all against their will in the name of ‘a cure’.

At the time that rest cure was in practice, the first wave feminist movement was in full swing and many people were not too excited about that. So one of the final components of the rest cure was moral re-education where women were taught how to rethink in order to control their emotions. 

This cure was all the rage at the time and was even adopted by gynecologists in England. It is debated whether the cure works or not, but what is forsure is the lack of partnership between the patient and physician. Instead it was a complete power dynamic that left the patient  completely vulnerable and out of control of their own health. Which is a situation that no one should be put in. 


Anne Stiles, “The Rest Cure, 1873-1925”. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=anne-stiles-the-rest-cure-1873-1925

Bassuk, E. L. (1985). The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Womens Conflicts? Poetics Today, 6(1/2), 245. doi:10.2307/1772132

From nerves to neuroses. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/medicine/nerves-neuroses

Gilman, C. P. (2021). The yellow wallpaper. London: Renard Press.

Lovley, J. (n.d.). Women’s Mental Health in the 19th Century: An Analysis of Sociocultural Factors Contributing to Oppression of Women as Communicated by Influential Female Authors of the Time. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/honors/502/

Sharpe, M., & Wessely, S. (1998). Putting the rest cure to rest—again. Bmj, 316(7134), 796-800. doi:10.1136/bmj.316.7134.796Stiles, A. (2012). Go rest, young man. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e734912011-015

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