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Bedlam: 1st Mental Hospital September 23, 2009

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in History, Mental Hospital, mental illness.
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The name “bedlam”, meaning uproar and confusion, is derived from the world’s first psychiatric hospital, Bedlam Royal Hospital of London. It began admitting patients in 1357.  Bedlam isn’t the only mental illness-related word that has made its way into our everyday language. An even more popular word is “lunatic”, derived from the Latin word “luna” for moon. “Lunatic” was originally used to describe what was thought to be the connection between phases of the moon and insanity, but has been popularized to mean someone who is dangerous, foolish or unpredictable, or possibly but unlikely, mentally ill. Mental institutions were, and still are, called “lunatic asylums” or “loony bins”.

Throughout history, as theories about what mental illness is and how to treat it have shifted, knowledge and approaches have changed time and time again. As early as 400 BC, the Chinese recognized and treated mental illness, and asylums were established in the 8th and 9th Centuries in a few Arab countries. As a sign of enlightened thinking, some monasteries housed and cared for the mentally ill in the early Middle Ages. But then things took a turn for the worse. In the later Middle Ages, when the primary treatment was ritual and magic, at least 100,000 mentally ill people were executed because they were thought to be witches.

In the early 1700’s, the medical community changed its perception of the mentally ill.  With that change came a change in names.  Instead of referring to the mentally ill as “lunatics”, they were referred to as “patients”. The situation improved somewhat, but was far from ideal. Around that time, Bedlam established labels of “curable” and “incurable” for the mentally ill patients, and began separating patients by these labels. As a testament to how misunderstood mental illness was at that time, lunatics were viewed much the same as zoo animals are now.  For a small sum of money, “tourists”, bringing their own sticks to poke the inmates, could go to Bedlam and watch them, much as we go to zoos to watch the animals nowadays.

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