History of Mental Health Treatments

This is a Guest Post from Licensed Nurse Practitioner and Mental Health History Nerd, Sherry Michaels Perry


All Photos Courtesy of cvltnation and Americas Most Haunted.com

The mental health field has changed a great deal since the 1800’s. Back then, you could be committed for almost any reason. A husband could commit his wife for almost any reason, including being caught reading a romance novel or turning down his sexual advances. The conditions in the asylum were abysmal and if you weren’t insane when you went in you would be very soon.
Common Reasons you could be committed:
 Kicked in the head by a horse
 Hysteria
 Immoral life
 Jealousy and religion
 Laziness
 The marriage of son (seriously, WTH)
 Laziness
 Novel reading
 Menstrual deranged
 Desertion by husband
 Tobacco
 Deranged masturbation. And just plain ole masturbation
 And…suppressed masturbation (make up your mind people)
 Seduction
 Time of life


And the list goes on and on.
Now I am sure that many genuinely insane people were also committed, but you have to wonder just how many people weren’t mad when they went in, but the deplorable conditions drove them that way.
The first piece of legislation involving the mentally ill happened in 1699 in America. It was called “Act of Relieving Idiots and Other Distracted Persons.” This led to the first insane asylum that opened up In Williamsburg, Virginia in 1773. That sounds nice doesn’t it, a hospital just for the mentally ill where they could be treated and once they recover come home to their families, right? Wrong!
At this time the people in these asylums had no rights. They were treated terribly by the staff and treated with any quack therapy that was thought up to cure them. Spinning chairs, bloodletting, water therapy aka torture was commonplace. Lobotomies were common. They lived in filthy conditions with no one that cared about them at all. The facilities were overcrowded and more often than not the patients were kept in chains.
In the book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, author Nellie Bly got herself sent to a local asylum undercover. This was in the late 1800’s, and the conditions that she saw were awful. The patients were cold and poorly dressed, rats infested the place, and the food was spoiled and practically inedible. Patients considered dangerous were tied together in large groups. The nurses were cruel to the patients, telling them to shut up and dousing them with icy water if they did not obey. Patients were beaten on a regular basis. Human waste was everywhere, even in the food areas.
Fortunately, when Ms. Bly was released, the public was appalled at her story, and this prompted a grand jury investigation. While it would be many years before conditions started to improve, this was a massive step in the treatment of the mentally ill in America.
In my next segment we will discuss the infamous Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, and perhaps how some of the former patients are in fact still believed to be there.

transThe Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia


Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website www.theoddpast.com and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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