Today, there is a stigma against the mentally ill. One hundred years ago, however, being mentally ill could get you locked up for life.
Institutions to house the mentally ill began in the Middle Ages. The word “bedlam” is derived from the 760-year-old Bethlem Royal Hospital, which is still in operation.
The Victorian View
By the Victorian era, it was accepted that mental illness was indeed a disease and this meant it was treatable. However, the reasons people were committed included conditions that have nothing to do with mental illness.
Reasons that could get a person committed included:
- Learning disabilities
- Being an unruly or opinionated woman
- Being dangerous or violent
- Being suicidal
- Mental exhaustion
- Giving birth to an illegitimate child
- Post partum depression
- Shell shock
Many people who were committed to asylums were forgotten by their families, and abuse of patients was common.
The number of people who were committed increased over the course of the 19th century. By the dawn of the 20th century, these facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, despite laws that regulated how they were run.
Treatments for mental illness were nothing more than torture. These “cures” included:
- Cold baths
- Withholding food
- Mercury pills
- Causing vomiting
Many patients didn’t survive their treatment, and often were buried on the grounds of asylums.
Not all treatments, however, were inhumane. Patients at the better institutions were allowed some measure of autonomy and rewarded for good behavior.
More effective treatments include:
- Art therapy
- Occupational therapy
Champions of Change
Former asylum patient Elizabeth Packard wrote three books on her experiences. She had been committed by her husband, a minister, for disagreeing with him on theology in 1860. Illinois state law said a person had to have a public hearing before he or she could be committed. The exception to the law was a wife; she could be committed by her husband without question. Packard was released three years later and eventually took her husband to court.
Packard later went on to be a champion of women’s rights and human rights.
In 1887, reporter Nellie Bly voluntarily committed herself to investigate the treatment patients receive in asylums. Her book Ten Days in a Mad-House is based on her New York World articles.
Her investigation led to an inquiry by a New York assistant district attorney and changes to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections which funded the asylums in New York City.
She is considered a pioneer of investigative journalism.
The work of these women as well as others and new medical discoveries helped changed conditions at asylums.
What progress do you feel still needs to be done in the field of mental health? Leave a comment below.
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