Those for whom these grounds are their last resting place may no longer have a voice, but we can help to ensure they are given the respect they most rightly deserve. Nowadays, attitudes have changed and are continuing to change towards mental illness and the stigma that historically sits uncomfortably within it.
It is up to us to do our upmost to help break down this stigma and help build hope in those affected by mental illness, where we will provide a safe and empowering space.
When we look at the history of treatment for those with poor mental health, it seems to have been nothing more than an experiment. Was this cruel or was it necessary?
Both probably apply as progression in treatment wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for our forefathers, but sadly it has been at the cost of a generation who were nothing more than medical guinea pigs and who, more than likely, didn’t have a voice in what has happening. And for that, I apologise to all those that experienced trauma in asylums.
Over the past 200 years, the treatment available to people with mental health problems has changed dramatically.
Today, the jarring language of “lunatics” and “asylums” draws our attention to a bygone age. But it was just 90 years ago when the Mental Treatment Act (MTA) 1930 amended the Lunacy Act 1890 and lunatics officially became patients and asylums, mental hospitals. The MTA was a landmark in mental health legislation, a stepping-stone towards the Mental Health Act 1959, which finally repealed both the Lunacy Act and the MTA.
In the early 1800s, “lunatics” would be locked up in their own sections of the poorhouse. Then, huge asylums were built to house these people together, away from the rest of society.
Few medical treatments were available in the early days of the asylums, but a more humane regime of management was reflected in the building throughout the 19th century of grand asylums on the outskirts of cities with their own land for outdoor sports, farming and gardening which can be clearly seen throughout Hartwood.
I personally find the terminology quite difficult to comprehend and accept as we strive now for positive outcomes, empowerment and hope. The words asylum, madhouse, lunatic now have negative and pejorative associations, but the words used reflected the ideas people had at the time. In the 17th and 18th century, someone called mad or a lunatic could be suffering from a variety of problems. The management of these people involved detention, restraint and isolation from the rest of society and their communities.
The Poorhouse section reserved “for lunatics” was used for those who were confused, violent, suffering from delusions, seizures, loss of memory or the ability to communicate, or from physical health problems causing mental impairment which nowadays could be treated, such as hormone deficiency, UTI, or end-stage syphilis.
But sadly, the majority were ‘locked up’ simply because they didn’t fit in with society at the time – petty criminals, delinquents, women who had got pregnant out of wedlock, drunks, women who disobeyed their husbands and even women thought to dress immodestly would be admitted to the poorhouse. Records state them as being ‘inmates’, a term we associate with prisons.
The pauper designation was because the Poor Law Boards of Guardians were responsible for paying asylum charges for people admitted from their locality, even when the lunatic made means-tested contributions towards their own care. With the changes, an “insane pauper lunatic treated in an asylum” became “a rate-aided patient of unsound mind treated in a hospital”. The new language of “patient” and “hospital” also brought the terminology of mental illness closer to that for physical illness, a step towards “parity of esteem”, as it is known today.
The revolving door syndrome
Sometimes the causes of mental ill-health seem discernible, be it bereavement, poverty, abuse, marital breakdown, etc., but often then, as now, the causes remain elusive. And as some had several admissions, it could be said that their time in the asylum was a failure because they kept coming back, but this would appear to be to be a lack of understanding of our mental health. As with physical health, there are periods when our health is more robust than others during our life. They probably had a condition that then (as now) had no cure, but was cyclical. So the asylum’s ‘revolving door’ provided a safe haven for them and much needed respite for their families.