In Katie Alender’s The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, turn of the century mental health plays a prominent role as some of the women who were housed in the institute weren’t so much “troubled” as they were troublesome, either in behavior or just by being unmarried and aging. The book also touches on the fact that mental hospitals were sometimes used as genteel ways to deal with women who did truly terrifying things such as murder. In a time period where women were seen as the paragons of virtue, it didn’t do to have a murderess in a well to do family if her crime could be claimed as insanity or better yet, discretely brushed under the rug and the perpetrator quietly disposed of into a mental hospital to not be worried about again.
The mid-nineteenth century had seen an evolution in mental health care from just confining people under the assumption that they were “afflicted” as some sort of punishment from God. Women, who have always been the victims of the stereotype that they were “weaker” mentally often were seen as particularly susceptible to mental breakdowns. The Victorian era led to improvement in the area of mental healthcare, but with little actual training many of the treatments were bizarre at best and cruel at worst. Women seeking education were considered especially prone to mental illness, as the education was thought to tax their delicate brains too much. Any woman showing signs of what we would consider depression or even having emotional outbursts were seen as prime candidates for treatment. Possibly the cruelest use of mental institutions was their use as a way to corral any woman seen as an intellectual threat to men. If a woman evidenced any opinion that was contrary to the social rules of the day she could be locked away to be subjected to bed rest, seclusion, bland diet, and prohibited from such stimulating activities as reading under the diagnosis of “hysteria”. Obviously this sort of treatment could drive even the healthiest person to madness, so many women were cautious in stepping out of their assigned role as housewives for fear of being carted off to asylums.
None of this is to say there weren’t women reformers at the time. One of the most influential was Dorothea Dix, who spent much of her life trying to improve the situation in mental asylums. Some treatment from this time period wasn’t intentionally bad, but the lack of information about what to do with people who had legitimate mental health issues led to some misguided treatments (such as a chair that spun patients around at a high rate of speed in an attempt to “reset” their brains). Unfortunately the history of mental health for women has involved some truly unfair treatment based on stereotypes and abuse of patriarchal power.