The untold origin of insane asylums

The National Institutes of Health define a mental illness as "a health condition that changes a person's thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning." Clearly, the term covers a lot of ground – the NIMH estimates that nearly one in five Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime. The results are multitudinous and varied, running the gamut from debilitating sadness to manic excitement, from an unintelligible and disjointed worldview to just liking Second Life a lot.

With such a wide-ranging scope, there's no catch-all for psychiatric wellness. Generally, the best you can do is treat it like any other sickness: monitor it, check in with a doctor regularly, and if it gets bad enough, go to a hospital.

That's a relatively modern outlook. It's taken centuries for us to get to this point, and we're still nowhere close to perfecting a centralized mental health system, but there's been progress towards destigmatizing mental illness and focusing more on treatment and care. It's not what it needs to be, but it beats the hell out of the old outlook, which read something like "mom seems a little down, better toss her in Arkham and trade up."

The long, terrible history of asylums

In the 8th century, when Judeo-Christian societies were still treating insanity as a punishment from God or the work of demons, physicians in the Middle East had started building "bimaristans," multi-purpose and reportedly lavish places of healing. Many included wards dedicated specifically to mental health, and, quite frankly, they sound kind of amazing. Rosanna Gorinni of the Institute of Neurosciences in Rome described them as places where "music, dance, theatrical performances as well as the scent of flowers, the quiet gurgling of the fountains, and an harmonic architecture were considered part of the health care." Patients were reportedly treated humanely, often free of charge.

Meanwhile, in Europe, people suffering from mental illness were kept at home or shipped out to monasteries to be cared for by monks. As hospitals became more prevalent, accommodations for the mentally ill did as well, though as time went on, it became more common to confine them to workhouses. By the 18th century, entire industries were built around "the trade in lunacy" thanks to the proliferation of privatized institutionalization. Horrific living conditions, coupled with the first publicly funded European asylums in the early 1800s, led to England passing the Lunacy Act of 1845, which theoretically changed the status of the institutionalized from "problems we need to put up with" to "people who need help." Take a look at asylums in Victorian England and you'll notice that it didn't, strictly speaking, work.