Olivia’s recent blog post¬†about girls with mental illness in Victorian society got me thinking. While Emilie Autumn sheds light on this dark tale in her song, it occurred to me that attitudes towards mental illness have changed many times throughout history, and before the First World War mental illness was always closely linked with women.
Mental illness was considered by early society as ‚Äòfeeble-mindedness‚Äô, especially in women, who were already labelled as the weaker sex. It was seen as a permanent state that was incurable. Many, however, believed it could be managed in a controlled environment with a strict regime and a re-education of morals. It was from this idea that asylums were born in the late 1600s. These institutions were safe havens for patients and records from Bethlem Royal Hospital tell us that each ‚Äòlunatike women‚Äô had an individual cell with double locks put on the doors and ‚Äúnone except the matron or maidservant shall have recourse unto them‚Äù.
We see attitudes slightly change in the 1700s with ‚Äòmadness‚Äô coming to be viewed as a loss of reason. Specialist institutions grew in number and the 1774 Madhouses Act introduced a licensing system for doctors in the UK to stop malpractice. The treatment of patients, however, had become harsh. Patients were confined to dark rooms, treated with leeches to thin the blood or plunged into cold baths, and we hear of Mrs G. being chained down for slipping out of the Bethlem Royal Hospital gates. The writer, John Wesley, seemed distressed that Mrs G. was treated in this way. Women could, in fact, be admitted to an asylum simply for voicing an opinion, and it was not unheard of for husbands to have their wives declared mad so that they could be kept out of the way.
Ideas changed again with the Victorians as they looked towards curing patients completely. It was around the 1800s that the asylum became more a place of confinement for the mentally ill, rather than a sanctuary. Patient treatment in these institutions ranged from straight-jackets to using electricity to shock patients out of their madness. The belief that ‚Äúlunatics‚Äù were unable to reason for themselves gave them no standing in society and they were treated as such with physical and sexual abuse taking place inside the walls of asylums. For those unable to afford treatment there was an alternative option in the form of the Workhouse. These buildings became much feared and were originally set up to support the ‚Äòidle‚Äô poor. Instead, they came to be inhabited by the old, disabled and mentally ill.
The First World War saw the world change dramatically. With the emergence of ‚ÄòShell Shock‚Äô came the realisation that hysteria and ‚Äòfeeble-mindedness‚Äô was not solely a female condition. This change had a deep impact on the way society viewed mental illness and how the medical profession treated it. There was a move from the harsh treatments of old to more revolutionary ones, such as psychotherapy or keeping patients active with tasks like needlework or kitchen chores. These new approaches laid the groundwork for what we see today.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind has some useful online resources¬†which¬†give a fascinating insight into the history of mental health over time and tell the story of Bethlem Royal Hospital over the centuries, alongside some of the patients who lived there.
All the photos in this post were taken by¬†Henry Hering in the mid-19th century, and are part of the collections at Bethlem Museum of the Mind in London. To read more about the women pictured above, please read The Daily Mail‘s article¬†Sent to the asylum: The Victorian women locked up because they were suffering from stress, post natal depression and anxiety.
Girl Museum Inc.