The Conditions of Mental Asylums During the Late 19th Century

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In the 1840’s, the United States started to build public insane asylums instead of placing the insane in almshouses or jail. Before this, asylums were maintained mostly by religious factions whose main goal was to purify the patient (Hartford 1). By the 1870’s, the conditions of these public insane asylums were very unhealthy due to a lack of funding. The actions of Elizabeth J. Cochrane (pen name Nellie Bly), during her book “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” significantly heightened the conditions of these mental asylums during the late 1800s.

At that time, sick people were usually treated at home. A hospital was a place of last resort where the patient usually went to die. It was the same with mental patients. The asylum was a place of last resort where, if need be, the patient would spend the rest of their life (Getz 35). The doctor would use a system of incentives, rewards, and punishments to attempt to cure a patient. The patients would have to live their lives on a strict schedule. They were made to participate in various activities throughout the day including bathing, eating, taking medicine, exercising, and conversing with the physician. They were also allowed occupational, recreational, and educational activities (Luchins 471). By the 1870s, the funding for asylums all around the nation was nearly depleted. At that time the definition of insanity was very broad. More often than not, a lot of the mental patients in an asylum consisted of people with physical illnesses or foreigners who were misunderstood (Bernikow 1). This is very different from our society today. A forensic psychologist, Dr. Harry McClaren, has stated that the current legal definition of insanity is very hard to meet (Angier 1). At that time the conditions of ...

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