Monday, 9 October 2017
Suicide in the Asylum
In line with world mental health day (10th October), I wish to share with you a fascinating case from the Garlands records which highlights the change in attitude (and vocabulary) surrounding those suffering from mental health issues, and in particular how suicide was dealt with. Time to Change are holding an event in the centre of Carlisle to help take the stigma away from mental illness. Part of the event will include two examples of patients that were in Garlands in the late nineteenth century, to highlight how attitudes, and terminology, have changed with regard to the treatment of mental illness. Incorporated into this will be a discussion around suicide, and how it was regarded in the 1890s. To fit in with this, I have discovered a patient who took her own life whilst resident in Garlands.
Mary W was admitted in May 1885 suffering from melancholia. She had previously suffered with mental illness, and had had a short stay in Garlands in 1880 for five months. Mary was from Whitehaven, a widow who was in her 50s. On admission she was described as industrious and active, but had been feeling anxious due to her thoughts around harming herself and her children. Prior to her previous admission she had attempted to hang herself, and these thoughts had begun to resurface. Looking at her family background on the census, it would suggest that the death of her husband in 1880 led to her first committal in Garlands. Learning from her previous attack of mental illness, it was noted on admission in 1885 that she: ‘Expressed a desire to come here herself’. This was often the case for patients fearing that they were unwell in some way, and certainly for those aware of the irrational feelings they were experiencing towards harming themselves or their loved ones. Quite often in the Garlands records patients are noted as wanting to be admitted for their own safety.
Throughout her stay in Garlands (four years in total), Mary was described as behaving perfectly well, but continually complaining of a feeling of a great weight bearing down upon her head. She was described as quite withdrawn, listless, dazed and feeling slightly lost. Five days after admission, the following was written in her case notes after an examination by the medical superintendent: “She labours under melancholia. She is dull and nervous. Told me today that she had a bad pain in her head, that she could not sleep at night, that she had such awful feelings and such a dread of something fearful impending, that she wished she was put out of her way and that she feared she might try to kill herself. She is in average bodily health. No marks.”
A month later, her depressed feelings and thoughts of suicide led to an incident observed by an asylum attendant: “Has been keeping well up to this date, but yesterday she was noticed to be unusually dull and…instructions were given that she was to be well looked after. This afternoon while the attendant’s back was turned she disappeared down the cellar stairs and, with a piece [of] tape, attempted to strangle herself. She was seen shortly after and no serious injury was observed, but she was noisy, listless, acutely depressed and struggled a great deal. Is sleeping close to attendant in observation dormitory.” Unfortunately her suicidal thoughts and attempts continued, as described in this entry for August 1885: “She has had several transient outbursts of excitement recently lasting only for a few hours each time during which however she is to be most carefully looked after as she is actively suicidal and is continually saying she is dead and asking to be killed. Sleeping badly. Takes food.”
As her treatment continued into 1886, the doctors began to see an improvement in her, noting that she had become much more cheerful, and even herself admitting she felt better. This led to the proposal of Mary being discharged, and the result was noted in July 1886: “Last month she looked so well that it was proposed to discharge her, but when she was told she said she did not feel well enough and had not sufficient confidence in herself and asked to be allowed to remain here a little longer. She is quiet, nervous and very industrious in habits.” Her nervousness and anxiety became a common factor in her condition as her stay in Garlands progressed. It seems that Mary lacked the confidence in her ability to remain well when discharged back home. The anxious feelings remained, and on more than one occasion prevented her being discharged. For instance, one entry in her case notes stated: “Says she still feels nervous and has not sufficient confidence in her own ability to face the world.”
It was this anxiety at being released from the confines of the asylum, and specialist care, which led to her taking her own life in Garlands. The entry dated 17 December 1889 described the incident:
“This patient has seemed so well in mind for a long time that last week Dr Campbell discussed with her the subject of her being discharged. She said she did not yet feel sufficiently well and was anxious to be allowed to remain in the asylum a little longer. On Saturday and Sunday (14th and 15th December) she complained of headache and stayed in bed. Yesterday and this forenoon she went about her work as usual and was quite cheerful. She was seen and spoken to by Miss Fraser about 4 o’clock this afternoon and nothing peculiar in her manner was then noticed. A little before 6 pm this evening the medical officers were summoned to the coal cellar of the female infirmary where the dead body of this patient had just been discovered by an attendant. The body lay on its back on the coals, the arms laid across the body. A cut across the throat and liquid and clotted blood on the clothing and on the coals beside the body clearly indicated the cause of death. There was an ordinary attendant’s table knife lying on the coals at the side of the body. The body was not cold, the muscles were flaccid. The cut is across the upper part of the throat, severing wind pipe and important vessels and death must have necessarily been rapid.”
This sad case was unfortunately only one of many that took place in Garlands. Precautionary measures were taken to prevent such events occurring, but sometimes they were not enough.
In line with world mental health day, it is important to highlight that mental illness can occur to any of us, at any time. Reflecting on stories such as this one reasserts the importance of talking about our feelings, and helping each other when we may be particularly struggling.
Thank you for taking the time to read this snippet from my research conducted on the Garlands Lunatic Asylum, which forms the basis of the PhD thesis I am currently working on. My aim is to write the history of such a fascinating institution through the experience of its pauper patients. If you have any stories relating to the asylum, or would like help in tracing your ancestors that were in this particular institution, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org