The Madness in 19th century



In the not so dim and distant past, the problem with the people with mental disabilities was easily and often dismissively ignored by many. The faith which those people came across was rarely pleasant and fortunate enough to be worth living. For instance, there were only two options between the people with mental handicaps could choose at that time, during the 18th and 19th century, the first one was if they were harmless , they could be leave alone to live as best as they managed to do, while the second illustrated how they were kept as a prisoners in degrading conditions.

However, the main aim of this article is to focus on the mental treatment in Britain during the 19th century and to explore the various methods of treatment at that time.

The majority of the people, who were mentally ill, were called ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’ or ‘feeble minded especially if they were suffering from learning disabilities. In the best cases, they were looked after their families, but in the worst-case scenario they were confined in prisons or workhouses. Until the beginning of the 18th century, madness, in particular, was wildly regarded as a domestic problem which did not take part in the public’s domain.  However, if the family was considered relatively poor or they couldn’t take care of the ill person for some reason or another, the person was to be taken in an institution called ‘asylum’ , which resembled much more a prison than a place for health care .

I would like to give an example how one long –standing traditional institution as the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem in London , which was founded in the early 1400s, treated the mental handicapped people. First of all, the policy under which the asylum worked was extremely strict and no exceptions were accepted. The candidates for being patients were to be put under medical expectation which could indicate whether they should be accepted or not. As the policy of the institution was clear that it was supposed to provide care for only curable individuals. The ‘lucky’ patients were confined for up  to one year, during that period they should be considered recovered from their illness, if not they were put in the ‘incurable’ wing.

During the 19th century,  apart from laudanum (an opium derivative resembling morphine) and cocaine, another type of sedatives was unknown, which was only work as an disadvantage rather than something else. The brutality with which many patients were treated was a commonplace, things such as chains, handcuffs, iron girdles, collars and strait-waistcoats were often used in methods of ‘taming’ the patients. Another treatment was mechanical restrain, under which the patients were chained to the floor or to the bar of their cells for a long period of time, sometimes even for life. Moreover, another well-established methods were the baths , sometimes the patient was put into cold bath with temperature below 75ºF or in hot bath with temperature above 85ºF. ‘The bath of surprise’ was a treatment in which the patient was suddenly precipitated while standing on its moveable and treacherous cover.

After those horrific methods of treatment, in the second half of the 19th century, a new method was adapted named ‘moral therapy’ , which was complete innovation for both the patients and their doctors. According to it, the patients were due to recover only in cozy atmosphere in which they could derive pleasure and solace. Consequently, many asylums were wildly decorated with paintings, home-welcoming furniture was placed and many other things were added in addition to the rooms.

Despite this promising treatment, the things swiftly changed with the arrival of the electricity power in 1831 by Michal Faraday. That arrival prompted even much more frightened prospect for the mental ill people, who were treated with the shock of electricity’s power. Doctors used no longer drugs as curable priority rather than sedatives , in addition they were adamant that mentally disturbed people were in deed of physical intervention as the only path to their recovery.

There were three main stages of electricity from which the doctors could take advantage during their treatment: galvanism (or continuous current), faradism and the frictional (or static electricity from which electrify the patient and then drawing sparks from the affected part). Nevertheless , the first two were highly in favor among many doctors while the last one was under strong doubt regarding its efficiency. Unfortunately, nobody was able to guarantee the future implications of such a methods and everything was performed in relation with the ‘trail –error’ approach . The treatment was imposed on the patient in different variation of times, sometimes in a period of couple of days, sometimes during a month.  It lasted between 10-20 minutes roughly ,as longer exposure could lead even to death or further unexpected difficulties.

At first, main area where the stimulation of the electricity was focused was the skin of the patients and the electrodes were placed in the hands. However, there was a gradual shift of that tendency and during the second half of the 19th century the electrodes were put in the head as they could ‘provoke’ a new wave of brain thinking and therefore that could lead to a successful recovery. Sometimes hand and feet were dipped into acidulated water with one electrode in it, which was supposed to accelerate the level of receptivity.

One typical case:  girl at age 26 , a farmer’s daughter with description of illness : melancholia. Her diagnosis said that mentally she was in state of depression with possibility of suicide attempts. The treatment consisted of doses of Chloral helping her to sleep and bath ‘s therapy, but without avail. She used to wake up with a start during the night, with increasingly violent behavior and in state of great excitement. As a result, she was imposed   with different types of drugs and under surveillance day and night. No future complications were observed with the exception of slight contorted movements of her head. Electricity was also applied 26 times, positive charge in the hands and negative one in the head.

This is only typical example of many cases, the implications were different and no one was capable of predicting the future results of such a treatment. Many people left the institutions partly recovered,other were not so blessed . If not recovery, it was observed strange calmness in the patients behavior, which the doctors acknowledged as a lack of harmful attempts or violent behavior.


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