Work therapy was used to prevent the mentally ill from having delusions or to distract them from their obsessions and delusions. It made the patients focus on finishing a product. Besides that, they contributed to the financial viability of the hospital. In the Guislain Institution they were even compensated for their work with so-called ‘institution money’.
As far as Joseph Guislain was concerned, there were good reasons for putting the mentally ill to work. There were certainly more advantages in having working patients. Although some of the mentally ill patients housed in the Guislain Institute in the 19th century paid for their accommodation, they still cost the government huge sums of money. Among the doctors, the financial aspect was never allowed to take precedence over treatment, but when patients underwent work therapy for medical reasons, this certainly contributed to the hospital’s financial viability.
In the institution for well-off patients in the Stropstraat, it was also customary for these patients to be kept active, in order to promote their recovery. Their work didn’t necessarily have to be useful. In the Guislain Institute that was different. Around 1870s, 267 patients worked as cleaners and carers for their fellow patients, as launderers or at the farm. The patients were remunerated for their work with so-called ‘institution money’. It was completely worthless outside the institution’s walls, but inside it could buy sweets or tobacco. The work was worthwhile from a medical and financial point of view, but also because of the discipline that it provided.
The work therapy of the 19th century had to make way for passive bed and bath nursing. In the interwar period, however, these were replaced, in turn, by the newly rediscovered work therapy. Instead of viewing the mentally ill as sick people, and consequently focusing on correcting their faults, the new approach was to try and take what did work well as a starting point.