Insane Asylum Reform (1830s-1850s)

          The 1830s-1850s major events in the reform of insane asylums. Most well known,was Dorothea Dix's stand for the reform of the treatment of asylum patients. Because they were seen as the "weaker sex", and therefore more prone to "diseases of the mind" (such as post-partum depression and hysteria), women were the primary canidates for institutionalization. There, the patients were abused, neglected, and subjected to abhorrent conditions and horrific methods of treatment. The asylums were overcrowded and filthy, and that was only for those lucky enough to be put in a separate mental health institution. Many mentally ill people were seen as criminals and housed in prisons. Dorothea Dix visited these asylums, and after viewing the horrors that the patients went through, demanded better treatment for the patients, and helped get laws passed in the United States and Europe that mandated better treatment for the mentally ill, and increased the funding to make those hopes a reality.

Dorothea Dix, the woman who pioneered the asylum reform in the 1830s-1850s.
Institutions where mentally ill people were usually housed.

Primary Source

“…I shall be obliged to speak with great plainness, and to reveal many things revolting to the taste, and from which my woman’s nature shrinks with peculiar sensitiveness. But truth is the highest consideration. I tell what I have seen—painful and as shocking as the details often are—that from them you may feel more deeply the imperative obligation which lies upon you to prevent the possibility of a repetition or continuance of such outrages upon humanity. If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with suffering which you have the power to alleviate, and make you hasten to the relief of the victims of legalized barbarity…” —Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts

Other Important Information

Doctor John Galt also pioneered two important treatment procedures for the mentally ill that we still use today - talk therapy, and psychotherapeutic drugs. His revolutionary ideas changed mental illness treatment for the better.

Two other women spent time in asylums and used their testimonies to help reform the institutions - Elizabeth Packard and Nellie Bly. Elizabeth Packard spent three years in an asylum (although she was perfectly sane)  because her husband, a minister, thought her defiance to his teachings constituted as "moral insanity". She wrote about her experiences and opened the eyes of the general public to the abhorrations taking place there. Nellie Bly was a reporter who went undercover in a major New York mental institution. Once she released her story on the conditions in the asylum, the public was outraged and demanded things be changed.

This movement is commonly linked with the prison reform movement, as well as the women's rights movement, because mentally ill people were often put in prisons, and a large number of the asylum patients were women. These movements also compare because they too asked for better conditions and rights for a disadvantaged minorities at the time. This movement can also be linked to Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson's view for the inclusion of the "common man", with adequate rights and fair treatment.

Comment Stream