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Mental illness in history

The term asylum is often used, but rarely understood. At its essence the term describes an institute that offers shelter and support to people who are mentally ill. Our society has often struggled with how to best care for people who are mentally unstable or labeled as insane.

Through time mental illnesses have been attributed to possession, poisoning, witchcraft, fate and many other tangible and intangible ideas. Prior to proper facilities, those who were ill were often treated with natural remedies, exorcisms, and physical punishments or worse.

The 1800s ushered in a new era for mental health treatment, asylums were erected and labeled as places of hope and compassion for those whose minds were haunted with unseen illnesses. North Carolina and Virginia were no different, with each state planning and facilitating many different units of care.

During the 19th century North Carolina had a great need for mental health care facilities; thankfully North Carolina had a health care champion, Dorothea Dix. Four major asylums opened in North Carolina to cover the majority of the state: Broughton in the west, Cherry in the east, Dorothea Dix in the south, and Umstead in the north. Three of these are still in operation and serving people of North Carolina. Southwestern Virginia also had an established facility. Originally named the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum the hospital was a self-sustaining farm, complete with a diary, horse barn, and orchard.

Mental capacity and mental illnesses were looked at differently during the 19th century than today. These spaces offered little safety one would expect from health facilities. The undertrained employees were working with overcrowding and slim staff. These conditions lead to misguided treatment and fear tuned these safety nets into many people’s worst nightmares.

It is important to note that asylums housed a diverse population from the criminally insane to impoverished people. As poverty ran rapid in Surry and Stokes counties and in Virginia in Carroll and Grayson counties, (and further) families and individuals who simple couldn’t sustain themselves often ended up in poor houses or asylums. Some recollections note a lady from Lowgap being sent to Butner State Hospital for mental illness sometime during the 1850s. Another lady was taken from her home in Hillsville, Virginia, leaving behind a young daughter. She was later taken to the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum.

Those who were housed in these locations suffered from much more than mental instability, being subjected to so-called treatments such as electric shock, beatings, hydrotherapy, straight jackets, teeth pulling, lobotomies, opium abuse and more. Inhumane treatment was commonplace at these facilities. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind,” is perfect for the treatment and allusivity of these places. Not only did the buildings hold patients, they hid them from the public eye, creating the haunting of minds that will never fade.

Years have passed and our knowledge of treatment and medical practices have grown to better understand mental illnesses. People have come to accept those who suffer from a haunted mind; protection from mistreatment is imperative. The horrors of asylums will likely never be forgotten but hopefully much has been learned.

Rachel Nealis is a longtime museum volunteer and supporter. She lives with her family in Mount Airy.



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