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Saturday, 15 June 2013

How times (and attitudes) change

One of the things that you discover as you research your ancestors is how much things (and in particular, attitudes) have changed, in a relatively short period of time. The biggest examples that I have found of this so far have been with regards to mental health issues.

One of my Great Grandmother's sisters died in a mental institution in Ealing in 1928. I don't know too much about the nature of her mental illness at the moment as it is relatively new discovery, but I know that she spent several years in the institution before dying there, and that her husband remarried (bigamously, it would appear) whilst she was there.

Her grandfather, John Graham (my 3x great grandfather) also died in a mental asylum, as it then called, six decades earlier (in 1867). Like his granddaughter, he was only in his early 40s.

 John was a weaver who lived in Eaglesfield in the parish of Middlebie in Dumfries. At the age of 40, he was admitted to the Southern Counties Asylum (also known as "The Crichton") and is described in the admission records as being "one of the  worst, miserable, wretched and exhausted creatures I have ever almost seen" which given how many people they must have had going in to the asylum, does not sound good. It certainly sounds far removed from the language we would use today to describe someone with a mental illness. He died four years later.

The awful truth is that my ancestors who entered the asylum, and thousands of others like them, were doomed as soon as they first experienced mental illness. There was a stigma attached to mental illness - even common mental illnesses such as depression were hidden until they could no longer be hidden, with incarceration in an institution the only likely outcome. Once an inmate (and that is what they were called) had spent time in an asylum, most became so institutionalised that they could never be released.

Today we live in a world where mental illness is much better understood. There are a range of therapies and treatments available, and people are encouraged to talk about their illness openly. Detainment in a hospital is a last resort, and even those whose illness does end in a hospital stay, return to their homes to continue treatment at home.

We have come a long way.

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