Sargant established a unit at Belmont Hospital during World War Two for the treatment of shell-shocked servicemen. There, along with Eliot Slater , he was a pioneer and advocate of physical methods of treatment in psychiatry such as ECT , continuous narcosis , insulin coma therapy and psychosurgery. His enthusiasm for such methods grew partly out of contempt for psychoanalysis , which was hugely popular among British psychiatrists between the wars. As an exponent of biological psychiatry , he regarded psychoanalysis as worse than useless in treating severe mental illness.
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His father was a City broker, his mother, Alice Walters, was the daughter of a Methodist minister from a family of wealthy Welsh brewers. Five of his uncles were preachers. His father lost most of his money in the depression in the late s and the scholarship allowed Sargant to continue his medical education. But in —four years after qualifying as a doctor—a nervous breakdown and spell in a mental hospital put paid to his plans.
Whilst there he did some experiments on over-breathing and developed a theory that the difference between normal and neurotic people is that the latter have lost their suggestibility.
Although the results were not altogether successful, Sargant resolved to introduce the operation into Britain. Sargant was sent, along with H. Shorvon, clinical director Eliot Slater , and medical superintendent Louis Minski to Belmont workhouse—renamed the Sutton Emergency Medical Service in the name of the hospital would revert to Belmont. It was, he said, "doing good by stealth". In he married Peggy Glen; the two had met at the Laboratory at Belmont, where Peggy worked as a volunteer.
The couple remained childless. At that time the new department consisted of a basement with no in-patient beds, and no requirement on students to attend lectures on psychiatry.
He said in a talk delivered in Leeds : "For several years past we have been treating severe resistant depression with long periods of sleep treatment.
We can now keep patients asleep or very drowsy for up to 3 months if necessary. During sleep treatment we also give them ECT and anti-depressant drugs". He wrote in his standard textbook An introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry: "Many patients unable to tolerate a long course of ECT, can do so when anxiety is relieved by narcosis What is so valuable is that they generally have no memory about the actual length of the treatment or the numbers of ECT used After 3 or 4 treatments they may ask for ECT to be discontinued because of an increasing dread of further treatments.
Combining sleep with ECT avoids this Sargant also advocated increasing the frequency of ECT sessions for those he describes as "resistant, obsessional patients" in order to produce "therapeutic confusion" and so remove their power of refusal. In addition he states: "All sorts of treatment can be given while the patient is kept sleeping, including a variety of drugs and ECT [which] together generally induce considerable memory loss for the period under narcosis.
As a rule the patient does not know how long he has been asleep, or what treatment, even including ECT, he has been given. Under sleep We may be seeing here a new exciting beginning in psychiatry and the possibility of a treatment era such as followed the introduction of anaesthesia in surgery".
Bailey and Sargant were in close contact and apparently competed to see which of them could keep a patient in the deepest coma. The available methods, which Sargant also referred to as "modern" and "active" treatments, were drugs in large doses antidepressants, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquillisers, neuroleptics , electroconvulsive therapy, insulin coma therapy, continuous narcosis and leucotomy. He was president of the section of psychiatry at the Royal Society of Medicine in , and was a founding member of the World Psychiatric Association.
In he was awarded the Starkey medal and prize by the Royal Society of Health for work on mental health. One man who consulted Sargant at his Harley Street private practice for depression in the s later recalled "Will" with affection and respect. Visiting Sargant for a brief consultation every six months, he was given large doses of drugs and had a course of electroconvulsive therapy; he remembered his relief at being told that his depression was caused by chemical and hereditary factors and could not be resisted by an effort of personal will.
She was given electroconvulsive therapy and large doses of the anti-psychotic drug Largactil and insulin. Imrie has written that her eventual cure was nothing to do with Sargant and his bizarre techniques.
John Wesley who had years of depressive torment before accepting the idea of salvation by faith rather than good works, might have avoided this, and simply gone back to help his father as curate of Epworth following treatment. Wilberforce , too, might have gone back to being a man about town, and avoided his long fight to abolish slavery and his addiction to laudanum. Loyola and St Francis might also have continued with their military careers. Perhaps, even earlier, Jesus Christ might simply have returned to his carpentry following the use of modern [psychiatric] treatments.
They are gifted with religious and social apprehensions, and they are gifted with the power of reason; but all these faculties are physiologically entailed to the brain. Therefore the brain should not be abused by having forced upon it any religious or political mystique that stunts the reason, or any form of crude rationalism that stunts the religious sense.
Battle for the Mind