[Leslie Carol Botha: It is hard to imagine being sent off to asylums for hormone imbalances, unhappiness from living in a male reality – and anxiety over one’s future. That really has not changed for women over the years. Although our husbands no longer have the right to lock us away – we are still living with hormone imbalance, stress and anxiety. Only today we are locked in the hell hole of minds riddled with drugs….our new asylum.]
Sent to the asylum: The Victorian women locked up because they were suffering from stress, post natal depression and anxiety
By Wendy Wallace
PUBLISHED: 16:00 EST, 12 May 2012 | UPDATED: 16:00 EST, 12 May 2012
These days, work stress, postnatal depression and anxiety are addressed with compassion. But just a few generations ago, the women who suffered from these conditions, were confined to an asylum.
The compelling portraits shown here, taken by Victorian photographer Henry Hering in the mid-19th century, have a haunting quality.
But apart from the women’s pensive expressions and drab clothing, there is little to indicate that the photographs had been taken in an asylum. If you took away the period gowns and hairstyles, their mournful faces might be looking out of the window of a bus or café today.
Then, however, women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).
These photographic records exist because some influential doctors, including keen photographer
Dr Hugh Diamond, believed that the then new science of photography could help to diagnose mental illness by capturing what he called the ‘exact point that had been reached in the scale of unhappiness’.
The idea that your face could be used to read your mind – and that how you looked in a photo could determine your fate – fascinated and horrified me. I was already interested in mental health. As in most families, there have been mental health issues in mine.
In the late 1960s, my gentle grandmother was plunged into a serious depression after the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack. A daring and sporty young woman, who grew up in a lively family, she found the loneliness and grief of widowhood in her 50s unbearable.
I was 11 or 12 when she became ill; the stigma around mental distress was stronger than it is now and my parents tried to protect me from it. But I noticed how Gran’s round shape changed to a drastically reduced outline and was aware of my parents’ worried conversations about her, of emergency phone calls and sudden dashes to see her in hospital, where, I later found out, she was admitted more than once after attempts on her own life.
However horrific the idea of ECT seems to my generation, which associates it with the shocking scenes in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, how much worse, I wondered, would her situation have been 100 years earlier. I started further research into the subject of women in Victorian asylums and learnt that much of the mental health provision then was still in private houses, often run by nonmedical men who did little more than keep patients locked away. With their living coming from the profit, there was little incentive to discharge patients who could be detained.