Victorian Insane Asylums: Treating Disease with Torture

Three insane asylum patients are locked inside boxes as a treatment method

Victorian Insane Asylums: Treating Disease with Torture

Melina Druga
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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.

In the 21st century, unfortunately, there is a stigma about mental illness. One hundred years ago, however, being mentally ill meant more than being judged and stereotyped.  It meant you could be locked up for life and usually without your consent.

The Victorian View on Mental Illness

A patient in restraints at an early insane asylum
A patient in restraints at an early insane asylum

By the Victorian era, it was accepted that mental illness was indeed a disease, and this meant it was treatable.

What was considered a mental disorder, though, was not fully understood in the Victorian era. People often were committed for conditions that had nothing to do with mental illness.

Reasons that could get a person committed included:

  • Madness
  • Epilepsy
  • Learning disabilities
  • Schizophrenia
  • Being an unruly or opinionated woman
  • Being dangerous or violent
  • Vagrancy
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Being suicidal
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Giving birth to an illegitimate child
  • Post-partum depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Shell shock

Many patients were forgotten by their families, and abuse was common.

The number of people who were committed increased over the course of the 19th century. By the dawn of the 20th century, asylums were overcrowded and understaffed, despite laws that regulated how they should be run.

Treatments

Three insane asylum patients are locked inside boxes as a treatment method
The insane asylum patients locked in these boxes are receiving “treatment”

Treatments for mental illness were nothing more than torture. These “cures” included:

  • Beatings
  • Cold baths
  • Withholding food
  • Isolation
  • Mercury pills
  • Bleeding
  • Inducing vomiting

Many patients didn’t survive their treatment, and many were buried on the asylum grounds.

Not all treatments, however, were inhumane. Patients at the better institutions were allowed some measure of autonomy and were rewarded for good behavior.

More effective treatments include:

  • Art therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Hypnotism

Champions of Change

The exterior of a Victorian insane asylum
Victorian asylums were beautiful … on the outside

In the late 19th century, reformers began advocating for 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.  She later went on to become a champion of women’s rights and human rights.

Reporter Nellie Bly, considered a pioneer of investigative journalism, voluntarily committed herself in 1887 to investigate the treatment patients receive in asylums.

Her book Ten Days in a Mad-House is based on her New York World articles.

Bly’s investigation led to an inquiry by a New York assistant district attorney as well as changes to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections which funded New York City’s asylums.

The work of these women and others, in addition to new medical discoveries, helped changed conditions at insane 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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Updated: 9 August 2018

Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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