So, thinking about mental illness and the way our forebears were treated, I thought i would write a little today about the history of mental health care for women in the Victorian era. This follows on from a previous post about my great-grandmother, Mary Connor.
These days, work stress, postnatal depression and anxiety are addressed with compassion. But just a few generations ago, the women who suffered from these conditions, were confined to an asylum.
In the mid to late 1800s women were expected to behave according to society's expectations, held to the archetype of a obedient housewife and mother. As such, if a women was to behave in a way that opposed the views or opinions held by her husband, the husband would then declare the wife insane and have her sent to an asylum.
Many women ended up in the asylum even if they were in perfect mental health.
Women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression (‘puerperal insanity’), to menopause, alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).
Anyone who could persuade two doctors to sign certificates of insanity could put away inconvenient or embarrassing relatives in a madhouse. Women – with lower social status, and usually less power and money – were more vulnerable.
Women were thought to be at particular risk of mental illness caused by supposed disorders of the reproductive system. Cases of melancholia associated with the menopause were treated with leeches to the pubis. The male doctors of the day saw ‘hysteria’ – from the Latin for womb – everywhere; almost any form of behaviour, such as excited chattering with other women, could be diagnosed as hysteria. In many cases, men and women used it as an explanation for any kind of unwanted or erratic female behavior, especially emotional behavior.
Mercury, known as calomel, was considered an effective treatment for hysteria but, like most of the medicines prescribed for mental illness, was highly toxic. Antimony, a toxic chemical now used in fire retardants, was employed to keep patients in a state of nausea, making acts of violence less likely. It was an early example of the ‘chemical restraint’.
Women’s sexuality was a prime focus of male Victorian physicians. Erotomania (hypersexuality) was considered a constant danger in female patients and could accompany hysteria. Physician Thomas Laycock noted that ‘the cold bath, the shower bath, the douche and cold applications to the regions of the uterus have all been employed with advantage’.
Perhaps the origin of 'take a cold shower' advice to young men to cool down their sexuality.
Patient's blood was also seen as in need of cooling and thinning (and they didn't have Warfarin in the 1800s). 'Cerebral congestion', deduced from unusual or manic behaviour, was treated by leeches to the temples, perhaps followed by cold lotions to the shaved scalp. Cold showers were used to cool overheated and overstimulated brains.
Interestingly in 1926, my mother then aged two, was supposed to have 'brain fever' caused by over-stimulation from her aunt teaching her the Charleston.
To be continued ...