Woman in a Mental Hospital, 1914. It would have been me.

I should content warning this because it’s got graphic, intense descriptions of mental hospitals and the lives and case histories of people in them 100 years ago. And it’s not easy history to bear. If you’re feeling at all sensitive, feel even more free than usual to not read.


I went back to the Tyne and Wear Archives two weeks ago with other participants of the Heads and Tales mental health heritage project to view some more documents relating to mental health history in the area. Some of what we can see as part of Heads & Tales isn’t open access and there have been lots of behind the scenes negotiations to gain permission.

For example, official patient records from early in the twentieth century. We got to see some a fortnight ago. There were more today.

I found 100 year old discharge records from a mental hospital in Sunderland more troubling than those of a mental hospital in Newcastle.

Perhaps it was the very different way they were written. Perhaps I was just reading on a different day.

I am emotionally exhausted tonight at the stories of dozens of women, all of whom I felt strongly for.

The records are from 1914.

One of the illness descriptions started that the woman was worried because her husband had gone away to active service. Later she felt sad and had trouble focusing on her work (at home).

That’s not a bloody illness.

That’s a normal human reaction.

Some of the women were – if the records are accurate – ill and in need of help. Some kind of support. We’d want them to have plenty of adequate medical help today that they might or might not be able to access. But I think some others weren’t ill, at least no illness we’d understand as an illness – even in a society where a quarter of us end up diagnosed with mental disorders.

One woman seriously damaged her hand in the hospital by banging on the walls of the padded cell they put her in to try to get her to calm down. She was there for days. I’ve talked with someone this year who spent time in a padded cell. She said how distressing and frightening it is there and a little of how the experience affected her. She would have done almost anything to get out. But this woman’s actions in 1914 were taken not as a normal human reaction to being locked in such a place but as a sign of greater mental illness. Eventually she was calmed down after hours in a “warm” bath. I hope it was warm. 100 years ago a warm bath in a hospital could be scalding as if they still wanted to cure you by balancing the humours.

And then there were the women who dared to get out of their hospital beds. The notes never spoke highly of them. We’ve thankfully lost that idea that women who are “mentally ill” should stay in bed for long periods. Even then it was a throwback to the feebleness (supposed) of Victorian women.

There were of course the usual delusions and hallucinations about god and the devil. Even that may often be a normal human reaction in stressful times. Certainly most voice hearing and seeing things isn’t psychosis and we all have some odd views. Should these unfortunate Christian women have been locked up almost automatically? I could only think that I’d read of pretty much the same delusions and hallucinations in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and many other saints. Except they weren’t called mentally ill. They got canonised and Teresa got called a Doctor of the Church by Catholicism, one of the few women to have that honour.

Reading between the lines and thinking of later accounts by survivors of mental hospitals and asylums it looked as though many of the women achieved their discharge not by being cured of anything but by learning to cooperate, play ball with the system, not cause any problems for anyone.

Unfortunately that’s something that too often still hasn’t changed. I read similar reports not from 1914 but from this decade.

And every one of those women was another person. Not just words on a page written by a string of doctors.

Today I found every one of the stories hurt inside but I didn’t want to stop reading. I wanted to pay respects to each person even if all I could do was read their case notes before forgetting their names and nearly everything about them.

Is that enough for them, for their mental and sometimes physical suffering, for their lives and memories? No.

But there isn’t anything else that I could do. If only there was a greater way to celebrate and hold up these women – and the men too, listed in one of the books of records from Newcastle. Perhaps one day there will be. Perhaps too, the archive we’re gathering records for – a big computer job next year – will help state the history better.

We can’t name names. We can’t take pictures of the records. Of course not. But perhaps in time we can do something.

Tonight I ache. For them. And, if I am honest, for myself too.

Because I know that had I been me in 1914 the greatest likelihood would be that I would have been in a mental hospital too, over and over again. Or in an asylum for a much longer period. Even ignoring what they would have thought about my gender they would have had plenty of contemporary reasons to either admit me or imprison me and to force me to remain confined to the grounds or even to a bed.

If I had been me living in 1914 I would now only exist as sets of patient records being read in an archive room by a few people who would have forgotten my name by the evening.

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