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Victorian ‘insanity’ in the 19th century

Why did Victoria have such a high rate of insanity?

A new book illuminating the world of Melbourne’s early lunatic asylums recently won the Victorian Premier’s History Award. Jill Giese, clinical psychologist and author of The Maddest Place on Earth, spoke with Tracesabout an intriguing slice of colonial history.

When I stumbled on an 1876 eyewitness account of daily life in Melbourne’s asylums, written from the inside by a mysterious undercover journalist, I was hooked. This wasn’t dark, stodgy history I’d unearthed – it was a rich social drama that I wanted to bring to life.

The gold rush brought hundreds of thousands of chancing newcomers to Victoria, all hoping to strike it rich and leave their troubles behind. But this great southern El Dorado also brought crushing disappointment and bitter psychological blows for many. The asylums swelled with broken psyches, and lost souls roamed the streets.

The citizens of booming Melbourne demanded decorum in their prosperous colony, so the law was broadened to enable more to be locked away in Victoria’s asylums. The new definition of ‘lunatic’ became anyone of unsound mind who was unable to manage their affairs, which scooped up children and adults with intellectual disability, older patients with senile dementia, people with epilepsy, and even drunkards who were wasting their means. All were locked away, although by far the majority of asylum patients were still those with serious mental illness.

And so Victoria’s lunacy statistics kept growing. Melbourne’s medical experts came up with remarkable local theories to explain Victoria’s surfeit of insanity, including the effects of the intense Australian sun on fair British souls, excessive masturbation, the religious fervour whipped up by Salvation Army meetings, Victoria’s high meat diet, and even the heady pace of modern life in contemporary Melbourne.

Read the whole story in Traces volume 5.

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