Mental Illness in the 1800s

DATED: 22.04.15

The topic of mental illness has appeared throughout the centuries. In the past, many scientists and physicians tried to tackle different types of mental illness, either by prescribing medication or by performing medical procedures such as a lobotomy. Attempts to treat mental illness go back as far as 5000 B.C. However, we will focus on a more recent era in this post, particularly the 18th and 19th century.

Due to the increasing numbers of individuals being diagnosed with a mental illness, in order to accommodate the number of patients, asylums were designed to house these patients. The first institution to do that in Europe was the Valencia Mental Hospital in Spain. Many more institutions were built over the centuries. Unfortunately, these institutions were not very popular amongst the public. They became infamous for providing inadequate living conditions, and there were also instances of physical or mental abuse of the patients who were admitted there.

Reports of patients being shackled to the wall in a damp, dark room also came to light. Mentally ill and violent patients were kept here too. They received the harshest treatments, which made their condition worse. Aaron Kosminski, an infamous suspect in the Jack the Ripper case was thought to have a mental illness. Though he escaped the law, many suspect him as the real Ripper, who created havoc in Whitechapel coincidently in the same era; the mid to late 19th century. Today, offer a look at life in Whitechapel during that time.

Going back to asylums, these facilities were not aimed at helping the mentally ill. They were only used as a place to keep them away from society. Usually, families with mentally ill relatives would drop them.

The most infamous mental asylum was Saint Mary of Bethlehem located in London, England. The institution became more commonly known as Bedlam due to its deplorable conditions and gruesome practices. Patients that exhibited violent behaviour were put on display for the public to see, as if they were part of a freak show, at the price of one penny. Patients who exhibited almost ‘normal’ behaviour weren’t forgiven either. They were let out into the public to beg for charity.

When things got out of hand, certain measures were taken to ensure better treatment of the patients. These measures were very effective and did improve the conditions of the patients, as well as the institutes that sheltered them. However, it failed to continue through the late 19th century for many reasons, rifts between patients and staff were soon created, and many patients from different backgrounds were treated badly.

Today, things are much different. The rights of patients are respected and upheld. However, back in the late 18th and 19th century, people had fewer options and very little hope.


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