Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mental Health Issues in the Victorian Era

Mental health is a touchy subject simply because of the stigma attached to it. Fortunately for us today, we live in a time when there are a variety of therapies, treatments, medications and laws to protect to the affected.

In the 1800s, things weren't so good. A wide variety of adjectives and descriptive phrases, some of which unfortunately made their way into the 20th and 21st centuries, were used to describe the mentally ill. Crazy, lunatic, half-wit, nut, lost their marbles, paddling around with one ore, demon possessed, were just a few. Today, there are real medical diagnoses, which, hopefully, we, who calim to be educated, caring people choose to use instead of the hurtful, unkind descriptions of yesteryear.

Most families of the 1800s who had mentally ill relatives, didn't speak of them. Sometimes they were locked in room of the family home with meals brought in, but the person never being received in public venues. Other times they were cast out. And still other choices were to simply ignore the problem as best they could. In the mid-to-late 1800s the asylum was brought into play as a place for the mentally ill.

The treatment of the day was based upon the morals and social norms of the communities in which they asylum was housed. Most people of the time believed that simply loving, caring for and accepting the person would nurse them back to a "normal" reality and more acceptable behavior. In the Victorian age, it was accepted treatment to house a mentally ill patient in a place free of stress. This involved staying in an asylum (which was relabeled "institution" in the 1890s), away from family, friends, job, normal day-to-day responsibilities, and simply resting, eating three square meals a day and wandering the grounds of the institution.  THERE WAS NO MEDICINE! 

On the other side of the coin, right before the "enlightenment" of the Victorian Era, many of the "insane", as they were called, were put in prison with hardened criminals instead of housed in medical facilities. Makes me want to jump in my time machine and go back to ask "and that was supposed to help them how?"

Many of the diagnoses we know today were unknown at that time. Schizophrenia, manic-depressive or bipolar disorder, multiple personality disorder, catatonia, depression....all these were given names in the twentieth century. We learned that depression is a chemical disorder, not simply the "blues". Schizophrenia is now a treatable illness, not just a person who needed shock treatments or worse, to be locked away as an embarrassment of the family.

In my book, I have a character who suffers mental illness. His illness causes him to hear "voices" and takes him on a journey no one in his friendship bank or family unit can deal with or understand. Having a family member whose father suffered from schizophrenia, it has been an interesting study, albeit painful. Hopefully, I can do this justice, and you, the reader will be left feeling sad for him and his family...which is only part of the objective. The other part is to show how far we have come.

It wasn't until the 1900s that more "radical" treatments were begun. It is too bad that medications now used for psychological trauma weren't even in the minds of the providers. Although the physicians and caregivers of the time were doing what they knew to do, it wasn't very much. Like so many things through human existence, psychotic episodes were simply viewed as demonic activity or an embarrassment.

Hopefully my character, his family and friends will tear at your heart and help you reach out to those in your circle who possibly suffer silently from clinical depression, addictions....any disorder. If what happened to my character had been in today's society, his treatment options would be many and varied and less frowned upon.

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