Monday, 13 October 2014

Madness Monday - sent to the asylum

Mental Health Week is over for another year. The ABC did a great job this year with Mental As ... campaign. It amazes me that government and not-for-profit groups make such a fuss over Mental Health Week, I have always thought that mental health awareness should be part of every week.

So, thinking about mental illness and the way our forebears were treated, I thought i would write a little today about the history of mental health care for women in the Victorian era. This follows on from a previous post about my great-grandmother, Mary Connor.

These days, work stress, postnatal depression and anxiety are addressed with compassion. But just a few generations ago, the women who suffered from these conditions, were confined to an asylum.

New York lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island in 1868
In the mid to late 1800s women were expected to behave according to society's expectations, held to the archetype of a obedient housewife and mother. As such, if a women was to behave in a way that opposed the views or opinions held by her husband, the husband would then declare the wife insane and have her sent to an asylum.

Many women ended up in the asylum even if they were in perfect mental health.

Women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression (puerperal insanity’), to menopause, alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).

Anyone who could persuade two doctors to sign certificates of insanity could put away inconvenient or embarrassing relatives in a madhouse. Women – with lower social status, and usually less power and money – were more vulnerable.
Women were thought to be at particular risk of mental illness caused by supposed disorders of the reproductive system. Cases of melancholia associated with the menopause were treated with leeches to the pubis. The male doctors of the day saw ‘hysteria’ – from the Latin for womb – everywhere; almost any form of behaviour, such as excited chattering with other women, could be diagnosed as hysteria. In many cases, men and women used it as an explanation for any kind of unwanted or erratic female behavior, especially emotional behavior.
Hysteria sufferer

Mercury, known as calomel, was considered an effective treatment for hysteria but, like most of the medicines prescribed for mental illness, was highly toxic. Antimony, a toxic chemical now used in fire retardants, was employed to keep patients in a state of nausea, making acts of violence less likely. It was an early example of the ‘chemical restraint’. 
Women’s sexuality was a prime focus of male Victorian physicians. Erotomania (hypersexuality) was considered a constant danger in female patients and could accompany hysteria. Physician Thomas Laycock noted that ‘the cold bath, the shower bath, the douche and cold applications to the regions of the uterus have all been employed with advantage
Perhaps the origin of 'take a cold shower' advice to young men to cool down their sexuality.
Patient's blood was also seen as in need of cooling and thinning (and they didn't have Warfarin in the 1800s). 'Cerebral congestion', deduced from unusual or manic behaviour, was treated by leeches to the temples, perhaps followed by cold lotions to the shaved scalp. Cold showers were used to cool overheated and overstimulated brains.
Interestingly in 1926, my mother then aged two, was supposed to have 'brain fever' caused by over-stimulation from her aunt teaching her the Charleston.
To be continued ...


  1. G'day, I enjoyed this post which I have included in GeniAus' Gems this week at

  2. Wow, very interesting, thanks. My grandmother's sister was epileptic, and was in an asylum all her life. It's tragic that nowadays she could've had medication and gone on living with her family, working, maybe marrying and having children.

    1. Thanks Janelle - it is sad that nowadays they could be with their family. I think of Mary being sent before the magistrate and put in the lockup and transported - so sad

  3. Thanks for this interesting post. One of my gg grandmother's spent time in Yarra Bend Asylum in the 1870's; it must have been terrifying.

    1. Thanks Jen - yes it would have been horrific - I wrote this post to remember Mary