Reasons for Insane Asylum admissions in the Victorian era

Imaginary female trouble, nymphomania and bad whiskey are three reasons patients gave when being admitted to an American insane asylum in the late 19th Century. Reading the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane’s log book reveals many surprising conditions such as menstrual deranged, female disease, venereal excesses and even novel reading.

The parameters around insanity, and how to treat it, changed considerably in the United States of America thanks to social reformer Dorothea Dix - described as one of the rare cases in history where a social movement of such proportions can be attributed to the work of a single individual.

Up until then, treatment for an insane person often meant being hidden by family in attics or sheds or even holes in the ground. Those without family or friends to support them were kept in prison.

Dorothea Dix’s commitment to improving care for mentally ill people began when she visited a jail in 1841 and saw mentally ill inmates chained naked to stone walls, in cells lacking either heat or ventilation. She managed to gain funds for the first state hospital for the mentally ill to be opened in New Jersey. She worked with Dr Thomas Kirkbride whose rural mental hospitals had long rambling wings filled with sunlight and air and comfortable living quarters. He felt that the building itself promoted a curative effect, and over 300 similar facilities were built in North America. However, the 20th century saw changes in treatment philosophy and more community-based care. The “building as cure” theory fell away and most of these hospitals are now either abandoned or demolished.

Ref: AWNS-19150923-50-3, a patient at the Auckland Mental Hospital feeding seagulls, 1915, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Treatment philosophies in New Zealand followed a similar arc to that in North America. The earliest home for ‘lunatics’ was a wooden building attached to the Wellington jail in 1844, soon other jails held mentally ill people along with drunks, vagrants and criminals.
Small purpose-built asylums, set up in the 1860s and 1870s, aimed to provide better care for mentally ill people with a minimum of physical restraint. However, these were mainly staffed by people who had no medical training.

In 1911 the term ‘asylum’ was replaced with ‘mental hospital’. Mental hospitals provided professional care from specialist psychiatrists and trained mental nurses, and people could commit themselves voluntarily for early treatment.

New drugs became available to treat mental illness in the 1950s and psychotherapy grew in popularity. Mental hospitals then became known as psychiatric hospitals. However, from the 1970s, mentally ill people began to be cared for in the community. By the 1990s almost all psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand had closed.

Auckland Libraries has a range of resources relating to asylums, including a number in the heritage collections, which you can browse through. Whilst the selection of images below of NZ asylums has been drawn from the Heritage Images database.

Hospitals in Auckland:

Ref: 7-A3032, Auckland Mental Hospital, c. 1881-1889, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Ref: 239-1, horse-drawn bus labelled 'Archhill, Asylum, Avondale, New Lynn', c. 1900s, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Ref: NZ Map 3500, Auckland City Council planning map 1947-1953, sheet No.2B, 1950, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Ref: 4-306, Carrington Mental Hospital in Avondale, c. 1887, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Ref: 435-C3-34, Oakley Hospital, later Carrington Mental Hospital, c. 1960-1979, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Hospitals in Wellington:

Ref: AWNS-19060322-12-1, Mount View Asylum and grounds in Wellington, 1906, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Hospitals in Dunedin:

Ref: AWNS-19060125-12-5, Larnach's Castle near Otago, which was acquired for an asylum, 1906, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Ref: AWNS-19040811-11-5, nurses and attendants at Nelson Lunatic Asylum, 1904, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Animals at asylums:

Ref: AWNS-18991124-5-7, First and Champion Yorkshire Boar, property of Avondale Asylum, 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Ref: AWNS-19081203-7-3, Auckland Mental Hospital's champion Ayrshire Bull, 1908, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre