Mental Health 200 Years Ago

The way in which mental health treated has changed dramatically over the years. Although there is still a degree of stigma around mental health in today’s society, there are also many effective treatments available and a higher level of understanding in comparison to that of 200 years ago. 

A lot of people do not realise how far mental health services have truly come. Back in the 1800s, people who showed signs of being mentally ill in any way were put into ‘madhouses’, asylums, workhouses and in many cases, prisons. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur if someone was put into prison today, just for having a mental health condition? Yet this was a common occurrence back in the day and no one would so much as bat an eyelid.

Mental health conditions have been treated in various different ways over the years, some of which have been very inhumane. In many cases asylums and madhouses closely resembled prisons and the mentally ill patients were sometimes chained to their beds, beaten and abused.  If someone was put into one of these institutions, it was very unlikely that they would receive visitors, they were merely forgotten about. These institutions aim, was not to look after these people, but to simply hide them away from society by taking them off of the streets and out of the public eye.

In the late 1880s, a woman named Nelly Bly posed as a mentally ill patient and got herself admitted into an asylum. Nelly was a writer and worked with a local newspaper. During her time in the asylum, she documented her experiences which were later published as a series of articles and were later turned into a book. Her descriptions were hard to ignore.

Whilst in the asylum, Nelly said she experienced brutal attacks, she was physically beaten and would have her hair pulled as well as being the victim of verbal, emotional abuse. All doors were locked individually and the windows were heavily barred, making escape impossible. There were 1 to 10 women to a room and over 300 people to one building alone. If a fire was to break out in the home, it would be impossible to escape to safety without all doors being individually unlocked… which seemed to be an unlikely occurrence.

Her book was eye-opening and the asylum that she stayed in was reformed as a result of her work. With people realising that simply isolating mentally ill people was not benefitting them in any way shape or form and that more effective treatments needed to be used.

In the 1930s a famous psychologist known as Sigmund Freud began researching ways of curing mental health conditions and ‘unusual behaviours’.  He devised a range of talking therapies to help ‘cure’ behavioural issues. However, the work of Freud would take years to complete and some people who were subjected to the ‘talking cure’ were not at all affected by it. As a result, other radical forms of treatments were suggested by other practitioners:

Many individuals were put into insulin-induced comas in order to try and calm them down and refocus their minds. Many were given lobotomies (which involves having parts of the brain removed) without their full understanding and consent. The aim of these lobotomies was to remove the parts of the brain that was causing them to experience manic episodes, depression, anxiety and so on and so forth. Though these were fully experimental as it was unknown which areas of the brain were causing which reactions. Electric shock therapies were also very common. Though there were cases of success in this area, there were also many fatalities.

Individuals would be restrained for several hours or even days at a time. Doctors would claim that this was for their own safety. though it was more commonly used as institutions become more crowded. The restraints used back then were somewhat uncomfortable, using the likes of straight jackets, wristlets and metal chains.

At the start of the 1950s experts began moving mentally ill patients out of asylums and back into the community. By 1962 the majority of asylums and mental institutions were closed down. And were in the process of being replaced with community care.

Today mental health is treated in the same way as physical health, by qualified and experienced doctors, in professional hospitals (if necessary) or from the comfort of their own home. To have people locked away for their mental health would be considered inhumane and wrong in today’s society. We do still have mental health hospitals and psychiatric units but these are not bad places to be anymore! People staying in such places are treated with respect, love and kindness and are looked after to a high standard, receiving treatments such as therapies and medication to help get them back on track. The majority of people with mental health conditions live within the community, never needing to be admitted into a hospital.

We have adverts, posters, helplines, community centres, group therapies, online forums and so much more for mental health today! All trying to break the stigma around mental health so that it can be viewed as being an illness like any other by society.
We have many forms of effective medications for mental health conditions now also! We really have come a long way over the years, though more could still be done.



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