The history of mental health, and mental illness for that matter, is rich with people who have paved the way from the early days of bone-chilling insane asylums, lobotomies and electro-shock therapy treatment. Women in particular, in some cases those who have also suffered from various maladies, are responsible for paving the way for how rehab centers, drug and alcohol treatment centers, bipolar centers and other facilities are run today.
We’ve come a long way since the days when hysteria was thought of as a female issue, and the bogus theory that there is a direct connection between body type and susceptibility to specific mental illnesses. Thank goodness! But it makes me curious about the pioneers of mental health and their history.
When I took a peek back to the 1800s, I learned about the experience of one educator and social reformer who sprang into action when horrified by the conditions of a Massachusetts prison.
Dorothea Dix, born in Maine in 1802, was a lobbyist who spent almost half her life establishing state hospitals for people with mental illness. It was time well-spent because her effort resulted in 32 new institutions built in the U.S.
As the oldest of three children, she left home to live with her grandmother in Boston at the age of 12. By 14, she was a teacher, which prepared her to eventually establish the Dix Mansion, a school for girls, and a charity school that impoverished girls attended for free.
In 1824, her book Conversations on Common Things was published, although she had also published textbooks. But it wasn’t until 1841 that she happened upon the abusive treatment of women prisoners at the East Cambridge Jail, which shifted her focus. She was a Sunday school teacher there when she realized there was no heat in the prison’s living quarters. She went to court and secured an order that they would have heat and that other conditions would also be improved, especially for those with mental illnesses. She became vigilant about the conditions of other prisons and poorhouses in Massachusetts, which inspired her to present a document to the local legislature to increase the budget to expand the State Mental Hospital at Worcester. But she didn’t stop there.
She travelled all over the country to inspect hospitals and prisons, which became her mission, along with campaigning to establish humane asylums to replace the old insane asylum model. She also founded more hospitals for the mentally ill where she saw a need.
In 1848, she lobbied at the federal level and asked Congress to grant more than 12 acres of land to build more hospitals. Although it was initially approved, President Franklin Pierce vetoed it in 1854.
The disappointment didn’t fester long before she travelled to Europe, where she met with Pope Pius IX to talk about the disparity between public and private hospitals. When she recommended reform for several countries, he listened to her and had a new mental hospital built soon after that.
The Civil War in 1861 kept her busy first as a volunteer setting up field hospitals, first-aid and training programs, which earned her the title of superintendent of nurses. But right after the war, she went back to advocating for the sake of mental health. It had clearly become her passion. Travelling was also a passion, although a case of malaria stopped her in her tracks in 1870. And sadly, that concluded her international involvement, although she continued to write and lobby for her favorite cause during her final years. It was fitting that in 1887 in Trenton, NJ she died in one of the hospitals she founded 40 years prior. This is a first of several blogs about Pioneers of Mental Health. I think they deserve the credit, even if in Dix’s case, they haven’t been around for more than a century.