Reasons to be committed: mental illness in the 19th century

I came across this on Twitter yesterday as I travelled back to Brighton from the RAS Club. It’s an official record of the reasons stated for patients being admitted to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum located in Weston, West Virginia in the USA. Formerly known as the Weston State Hospital, this facility was constructed between 1858 and 1881. The first phase of the original hospital, designed to house 250 people, was opened to patients in 1864 but its population expanded to a peak in the 1950s with about 2400 patients in overcrowded and generally poor conditions. It was closed as a hospital in 1994 but remains open as a kind of museum. Like most such institutions it was founded with good intentions and was designed with long rambling wings arranged in a staggered formation, assuring that the patients received an abundance of sunlight and fresh air. Just as was the case with similar institutions in the United Kingdom, however, the lack of effective treatment for the mentally ill led to it becoming more a place of incarceration than therapy and no doubt many troublesome individuals were committed there simply to keep them out of the way.

Anyway, here is the list:

Lunatic Asylum

When I first saw this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The mind boggles, for example, at a diagnosis of “masturbation and tobacco”, or was that the treatment? Among the baffling entries, however, you can see a clear thread of misogyny and considerable evidence of the traumatising effect of the American Civil War, not only on combatants but also on grief-stricken relatives of the fallen. It was on April 9th 1865, almost exactly 150 years ago, that Robert E. Lee surrendered the 28,000 troops of the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant, thereby ending the American Civil War so it is not surprising so many entries refer to “The War”.

Psychiatric hospitals are no longer called “lunatic asylums”, and the approach to the mentally ill is no longer simply to lock them away out of sight, but despite the progress that has been made they remain far from happy places even if you’re only there voluntarily and for a short time. You can take my word for that.

2 Responses to “Reasons to be committed: mental illness in the 19th century”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I doubt that anybody was put in there who was competent to live a life outside it; the list exists because it was socially necessary to give a reason. It is in every sense a shame that this fact could not be stated, and that absurd reasons were given. Today there is an opposite problem: syndromes (to use as general a word as I can think of) are given differing names according to differing types of behaviour exhibited although there is no knowledge of any underlying ontological explanation. That is in contrast with bodily medicine, in which the names of specific diseases are nowadays associated with specific bacteria or viruses.

    The syndrome names give the illusion that the problem is understood when it is not. Let us be compassionate to all who suffer these things. And I agree with Peter that the American Civil War is behind many in that list.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    …idiots, imbeciles, aliens, the insane and women…

    —A law standing in Texas until 1918 regulating who could not vote

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