The secrets of London’s past. 🏣 + A new journal entry!

May 4, 2018

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We've covered many topics related to Ginger Gold and the 1920s, and will soon cover interesting subjects related to my other books as well. This week's post is about Asylums in London.

Before the 1920s, those admitted to asylums often faced an uncomfortable, often prison-like existence where they were sometimes forced to partake in experimental treatments. Conditions were improved for many by an Act passed in 1890 that put certain restrictions on how patients could be physically restrained. Before the Act was passed, it was commonplace for individuals to be restricted by chains or straight-jackets. Patients who were uncooperative or who were at risk of hurting themselves were often locked in padded rooms or placed into crib-like beds that had bars over the top.

Asylums were segregated by gender and were very structured. Patients who were able to work often spent their days doing so. For most women this meant needlework or laundry and for men it often meant gardening, baking or physical labor. Many of these institutions were understaffed, with the majority of the staff lacking adequate training.

Women were often admitted to asylums against their will for alcoholism or for expressing radical beliefs. In some cases men who wanted to avoid the hassle of divorce would instead choose to admit their wives to an institution. For some women, entering an asylum was respite from gruelling housework or unhappy marriages. In less fortunate circumstances, the staff at these institutions were abusive, pushing previously functional people into mental decline.

During the 1920s, new treatments and drugs were being discovered. In some institutions, patients were drugged with barbiturates to make them less aggressive. Other forms of treatment being tested at the time were insulin therapy and fever treatment. Patients who were treated with fever treatment were purposely infected with malaria to induce a high fever that was believed to kill off pathogens causing mental impairment.

In the 1930s, Electroconvulsive Therapy and the Lobotomy were introduced as new forms of therapy for various types of mental illness. Both of these early treatments were extremely risky and could have lasting damaging effects. The ETC therapy could cause severe convulsions resulting in injury. However, it proved to be a fairly effective treatment for some patients. Lobotomies were an invasive procedure that involved removing a portion of the brain that was believed to be the source of mental illness. This procedure had varying levels of success, sometimes leaving patients impaired afterward.

In 1923 a women’s asylum in California called the Rockhaven sanitarium took a unique approach to treating their patients. Instead of inflicting punishments on their patients for their disturbed behavior, patients were treated with dignity and respect. Established by a former female nurse, Agnes Richards, the institution was revolutionary in many ways. Women at the institution were referred to as “ladies” rather than “patients” and participated in various fun activities such as picnics and dances. Many women flourished under the care of Rockhaven proving that the conditions of asylums could significantly affect outcomes for each patient. Read more about Rockhaven here (link).

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  1. Interesting that before the 1920’s people were not treated with dignity like they are after the 1920’s. Short staffed too. Sometimes I wonder if people are treated without dignity today.

  2. I knew that a ton of had stuff used to happen but I hadn’t realized there was a positive asylum way back in the 20’s! Rockhaven was something more should have done.
    I wonder how many people died from having a lobotomy performed on them.

  3. Interesting and kinda sad the things people were put through in the name of science. Even though we are still learning, I hope things are much better tested today. Still, it’s history and interesting how we got where we are today.

  4. I’m thankful the modern medicine has progressed a bit since the days of those old asylums. ECT therapy is back in vogue for depression…done a bit more humanely now though!

  5. So happy I live in a time where speaking my mind doesn’t land me in an insane asylum. I would be in trouble.

  6. Interesting post. I remember “touring” a state hospital back in 1957 and, as young as I was, was horrified at what I saw. They must not have thought it bad, though, as they let our youth group in. (I wonder what was hidden.)

  7. I am certainly glad that treatments for mental illness has progressed and that those treatments are no longer used.

  8. I studied quite a bit of asylums in the States and not surprised to see they were not much different than in early Europe.

  9. I found it interesting that they used “fever treatment” where they infected patients with Malaria to treat mental illness. I am so thankful that they have come up with better ways to treat those with mental illness.

  10. So interesting how mental patients were treated in the past. ECT has made a comeback too but is more humanely done now. Just read a trivia piece re the soda 7-Up–lithium citrate was an ingredient for the first 20 years (1929-1948) it was produced! They should have given it to the asylums.

  11. Good lord, they purposely infected people with malaria because they thought mental health issues were caused by pathogens?! It’s nearly a century later and we are STILL trying to remove the stigma and to get people go go seek help.

  12. The info on asylums was great as a former psychiatric nurse practitioner that studied under the great Garland Lewis I knew most of this history but was not aware of Rockhaven! I love Ginger Gold. Thanks so much for a fantastic series!

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