A glimpse inside a Victorian lunatic asylum

SANCTUARY ... the patient's experience of the 19th century asylum.
SANCTUARY ... the patient's experience of the 19th century asylum.

THE term ‘lunatic asylum’ has become coloured over the years by its associations with Bedlam and with the degradation of those suffering from mental illness or disability.

Such institutions, half-prison, half-workhouse, at least in our imaginations, cast a long shadow over the treatment of mental health.

Good riddance, is probably the attitude of many to their demise.

And yet ... and yet ... while it’s true that some people saw out their lives in asylums, who didn’t belong in them, the ethos of those of the Victorian era was, by its light at least, to be protective and to encourage recovery.

Life in the Victorian Asylum, by Mark Stevens, is an illuminating book, taking the reader, as if we were the patient, through the doors of a typical institution of the period.

There is a strict regime, as you would expect, but its aspiration is cleanliness, nourishment and occupation.

Work as well as games and other entertainment deflect disordered thinking. There is exercise, often in the fresh air.

These actually comprise the greater part of the treatment, with only limited recourse to medicines – not that force-feeding and padded cells didn’t exist.

You’re left contrasting it all with today, where mental health has become the Cinderella of the health service, and care in the community is too many families struggling alone with distressed loved ones.

Somewhere between then and now, we seem to have lost our way.

* Life in the Victorian Asylum, by Mark Stevens, is published in hardback, price £19.99, by Pen and Sword Books (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk)