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30 August 2011

The Asylum.

So one of my curiosities is medical history. And one of my favourite artists is the wonderful Emilie Autumn. Therefore, you may understand why I find the subject of asylum's interesting.

Emilie Autumn's book is a semi-autobiographical novel called "The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls". The reason for the 'semi-autobiographical' approach to the story is that Emilie Autumn herself is a sufferer of bi-polar disorder. As well as this background illness, after a tour with Courtney Love in 2004, Emilie discovered she was pregnant. Due to an extreme phobia of childbirth, she took the decision to terminate the pregnancy - which triggered a huge breakdown where she tried to commit suicide. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. At some point in her stay, a nurse allowed her to have a crayon and so Emilie started to write a diary. The tattoo you see on her arm is in fact her patient cell number from this stay. Emilie says her novel is based on this diary, but in writing the novel also wanted to give a message that Victorian inmates at an Asylum were not "insane" and that mental illness was, and still is to a large degree, misunderstood.

So with this in mind, what was an asylum in the Victorian era? We must always remember that the attitude towards mental illness has been guided by frequent misconceptions, misunderstandings and medical progresses steered by trial and error. We must always remember too, that on the receiving end of such preconceptions are human beings.

The first recorded asylum in England was that of The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247 in London. The first mentally ill patients were admitted in 1407. By the Victorian era, it was known as the infamous "Bedlam hospital", due to its' awful treatment of its' patients. Although the Victorian's revolutionised the idea that these ill people were not prisoners, but patients, they also decreed by law in 1845 that as patients, they lost the right to access the courts and (more chillingly) to protest their incarceration.

Such a law meant that it was popular for people who were not necessarily mentally ill to be admitted by unscrupulous relatives or others. There can be no doubt about the horror these people would have encountered.

To be admitted to a Victorian asylum, an examination would be carried out. People were admitted for many reasons, and unfortunately, women were not treated terribly fairly. Conditions that resulted in being admitted ranged from stress, trauma, ''childbearing'' (now known and recognised as Post Natal Depression), or even hormonal problems, lack of marital duty (read: not wanting to sleep with one's husband! Or, more likely, not wanting to get pregnant again - remember it was common for Victorian women to have upward of 4 children), alcoholism and other addictions, or in some cases, epilepsy or sometimes just being eccentric. It is notable that wards in an asylum were strictly male/female, there was no mixing of the sexes.

Contrary to popular opinion, it would seem that widespread use of physical restraints on patients was withdrawn largely by the 1830's. Only patients that posed a risk to others and themselves were restrained by the straight-jackets and padded cells. Of course, sadly there are cases of asylum workers terribly abusing their position of power and severely mistreating patients. There are recorded cases of patients being kept restrained, muzzled, some female patients being subject to sexual abuse, some accounts of experimental medical practise also.

All of the ''horror stories'' of asylums actually stem from before the Victorian time, or actually from our modern times. For example, at the Bedlam hospital in the 1700's you could pay to see the ''prisoners'' in the hospital - as a kind of freak show. Lobotomies were in fact, not "invented" until the 1930's and indeed, not widely practised until the 1950's.

So why does the darkness of the asylum capture people's imaginations? Perhaps it stems from that Victorian law where you cannot protest your admittance from the asylum. Can you imagine being admitted when there is nothing wrong with you, yet you cannot speak out about it? Or perhaps it comes from the fascination with the macabre aspects of treatment of patients?

Of course, this is just a brief little bit on the history of the Asylum. Depending on your thoughts I may write more on this :)

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