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Were the asylums of the nineteenth century intended to incarcerate dangerous elements of society or treat unfortunate sufferers?

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Introduction

Were the asylums of the nineteenth century intended to incarcerate dangerous elements of society or treat unfortunate sufferers? It is a reasonable assumption that throughout mankind's history mental illness has been present. Ancient sources exist detailing the mannerisms and symptoms of 'mania' and 'melancholia', diseases that could today be identified as 'schizophrenia' and 'depression'. The mad were often left to themselves, the 'village idiot' being a common sight in English villages throughout the middle ages. During the seventeenth century, 'dangerous' mad people would be incarcerated in prisons and privately run 'madhouses' whilst those who could not support themselves would often be grouped together with other social deviants in the workhouses. Madness belonged to the realm of the supernatural and the religious. Madness was explained as the possession of the soul by evil spirits and treatment involved the use of charms and rituals. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century rendered these views as primitive and misguided1 and allowed a branch of medicine for madness, psychiatry, to develop. This new branch of medicine benefited from the economic need for labour and new humanitarian ideas as the state intervened in the life of its citizens. Across Europe, the nineteenth century saw the development of a network of state led asylums replacing the privately run 'madhouses' that were little more than prisons. ...read more.

Middle

The charitably asylum of Manchester only catered for 100 patients and would cost a pauper 7s a week for residence7. By 1870 there were sixty-six public asylums in England with an average of 802 patients and overcrowding was rife. The work of Philippe Pinel in France and William Tuke in England were influential in establishing the asylum as a moral correction facility. Philippe Pinel reformed Parisian asylums introducing a moral code in housing the mad as opposed to brutal conditions. William Tuke established the famous York Retreat in 1796 on religious grounds but the moral and humanitarian treatments that were employed further transformed the care of the mad. Moral correction was seen as a way of curing the mad and as such the model for asylums was established. Discussions within government resulted in a Parliamentary Select Committee being formed in 1808 that suggested the division of England into sixteen regions and for each region an asylum was to be built to house two hundred patients. This was the birth of the county asylum movement in England, though few counties actually built asylums, chiefly because it was such a costly exercise and the pauper lunatics could be farmed out to private madhouses for much less cost. ...read more.

Conclusion

In 1890 the Lunacy Act was passed in Britain that meant a magistrate's sanction was required to incarcerate a person in the asylums. Increasingly this meant that asylums were more detention centres for the particularly highly progressed mad people and virtually incurable. It seems to me that the asylum movement was set up with the best of intentions. Pioneers such as William Tuke and Philippe Pinel reformed the brutality of the institutions and developments in medical thinking in regards mental health lead to the belief that asylums would be the best place to potentially cure the insane, though some doctors undoubtedly saw the quest for an asylum movement as a way of securing an income13. During the nineteenth century there was the belief that the separation of social deviants from society would mean they could be treated and restored as 'proper' citizens. However asylums also acted as a way of shelving the problems that the insane cause and prevented them from effecting the work standards of others. The asylums fulfilled a dual role of removing potential dangers from society and providing the medical profession with patients to experiment on in the hopes of achieving cures. By the end of the nineteenth century asylums were increasingly becoming little more than detention centres for the groups of society who could not work either through incurable insanity or old age. ...read more.

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