We've come a long way from opening the doors of Bedlam hospital on a Sunday afternoon for the public to pay a penny to come in and gawp at the patients...chained to the wall...shambling about in rags and gibbering. A jolly way to spend a pleasant afternoon with the family...
The Mediaeval Irish were completely the opposite...there were strict rules and guidelines laid down as to how the mentally ill were treated and stiff penalties if you disobeyed them. It was forbidden to encourage a mentally ill person to commit a crime for instance...nor were you allowed to goad them into having sex...they had to be treated with respect and fed and clothed by the general community in which they lived...
The early Victorians were both fascinated and appalled by anyone who didn't conform to their image of normality...restraint in wet sheets was considered to be the solution for everything from epilepsy to mania...literally chaining those deemed to be dangerous to a wall was commonplace . And this was the era when a husband could have his wife or his other relatives committed to an asylum for no better reason than he wanted to be rid of them...
There were private homes...small and discreet, out in the countryside...staffed by well paid assistants who no doubt did their best as far as they were able...I found some records on-line for such a home once...the patients were referred to as Ladies and Gentlemen and always by the prefix Mr or Mrs...they were dosed with derivatives of opium...to keep them quiet and biddable...
But they did have occupations and interests...needlework and water colour painting and they had their own rooms.
Everyone was simply thrown together as it were, in the big public hospitals...there were those we now refer to as the criminally insane, mixing with those who'd had a nervous breakdown...it must have made for some extremely unhappy people whose symptoms cannot have been helped in the least.
Since the days of opening Bedlam to the general public, we've gone through many changes in the way we treat those who are suffering from some form of mental disorder...from almost routine lobotomies to the liberal use of L.S.D....once happily known as 'The problem solving psychedelic' to virtually every family Doctor doling out Librium and Valium to harassed Mothers...
We used straitjackets for control and small bare locked rooms for those people to thrash about in until their anger and grief were spent...that hasn't changed much. I watched a programme on television recently of a prison in America where mentally ill prisoners were restrained by a mob of guards armed to the teeth...
There will always be those who can virtually be described as 'beyond help'...the cannibals and the savage psychopaths'...those whose minds are so wrongly wired they can only be held in a safe enough environment...now England has three specialist hospitals for those patients...and they are patients, not prisoners', cared for by nurses, not guards. Rampton is for those with a low I.Q. who have, nevertheless committed appalling and deviant crimes...the other two, Ashworth and Broadmoor, are for those considered to have a relatively normal intelligence....and sometimes that intelligence reaches genius level.
Family Doctors are wary of doling out anti-depressants to all and sundry now and we can talk about suffering from depression without people looking askance...we know epilepsy isn't a devil trying to escape from our head and administering wet sheet treatment would land you in prison...at least I hope it would.
But have we accepted mental illness? Have we really and truly accepted that there are some people who commit awful acts because they are ill...not evil or bad or wicked...but because of a glitch in their brain. The part which tells the majority of us that this act is wrong, doesn't work in their case. I'm always struck by the sheer amount of pure hatred and bile directed at some murderers or those involved in animal cruelty by the comments section of the reports...you'll have read them I expect...'Give me half an hour with that bitch and I'll show her!' And I rather wonder...if they were actually given that half an hour, if they'd carry out the threat...I doubt it. Because those comments are a way of expressing something those people would certainly hesitate to carry out given the opportunity. Their brains are not wired that way.
Perhaps the early Mediaeval Irish had the treatment and care of the mentally ill about right...living in the community under the watchful eye of everyone in the village. Everybody being held responsible for their welfare. Though I do wonder what care they gave those deemed to be more mad than most...