Dorothea Dix: Angel of Mercy for the Mentally Ill

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During the mid 1800s prisons were a place to put children accused of petty crimes, the mentally ill and criminals. As a result, debtors, children who were offenders, and the mentally ill were often locked up in jails with murderers and thieves. Dorothea Dix worked to change Americans’ ways of thinking about these institutions and their inmates.
During the 19th century, mental health disorders were not recognized as treatable conditions. They were perceived as a sign of madness, warranting imprisonment in merciless conditions. One woman set out to change such perceptions: Dorothea Lynde Dix.

Dix – a teacher and nurse during the American Civil War – tirelessly campaigned for the fair treatment of patients with mental health disorders, after being appalled by the conditions in which they were confined.

“I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience,” wrote Dix in a Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts in 1843.

In the years that followed, Dix traveled to hundreds of prisons and workhouses across the U.S., documenting the inhumane treatment that people with mental illness received and reporting her findings to state legislatures.

Her work not only resulted in the establishment of 32 mental health hospitals in a wealth of U.S. states, but it also helped to change people’s perceptions of mental illness.

“Through her work, she shed light on the abuse and neglect of those with mental illness, which helped change perceptions and policy approaches of state, national, and international leaders to establish more humane treatment approaches,” Paolo del Vecchio, director of the Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told Medical News Today.

By Honor Whiteman, Medical News Today

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