Friday, February 27, 2015

52 Weeks of Genealogy - Week 32 - Asylum Records

Shauna has chosen Asylum Records for her topic in Week 32, and tells us that "there were many kinds of asylums apart from mental asylums including benevolent, children’s, sick, destitute and infirm asylums. Even those in a mental asylum may not have been suffering a mental illness, they may have simply been old, frail or sick with no other place to go."

Having spent over 18 months caring for my father who had developed Alzheimers, I have become more aware of the support and care services we enjoy today which would not have been imagined by our ancestors.  For those 200 years ago with illnesses such as dementia, schizophrenia, epilepsy, alcoholism, even post-natal depression, there was little (or no) support, services or understanding of their condition.

Formal mental health care began in Australia with the opening of the Australian Lunatic Asylum at Castle Hill NSW in 1811.  In those times mental illness was viewed as madness and related to ‘bad blood’ or character flaws rather than illness, and management was custodial and by physical restraint, isolation and control.  There was little emphasis on treatment and early facilities were staffed by untrained care assistants. 

The mid to late 1800s saw medical superintendents in charge of asylums.  The philosophy was increasingly one of humane care, although overcrowding often resulted in custodial management.  A 1867 Act of Parliament sent people with mental illness to asylums rather than prison.  There is still little understanding of mental illness and people with a variety of illnesses/disablities found themselves in asylums – people with Alzheimers, epilepsy, Downs Syndrome, alcoholism, etc.  Nursing homes were very rare – there was often nowhere else for people to go if their families were unable to care for them.  

By 1900 medical superintendents had started training some staff, and the introduction of female staff was being considered.  There was a growing awareness of age-related dementia being different than other mental illnesses and physical disabilities were becoming better understood.  The 1950s saw the commencement of specialization in nursing and an illness approach to mental health problems, with a curative focus.  The major tranqulizers were being developed and pharmaceutical management rather than physical restraint became possible.  We was the beginning of nurses working therapeutically with clients individually and groups, and nursing homes became more common as mental health care as we know it today developed.

I have 2 ancestors (that I currently know of) who have been inmates of an asylum.  Both were elderly when admitted and both died in the asylum, although I have little further information about their conditions and why they were admitted.  This will become a project for me to follow up this year.

Shauna adds that "Asylum records are mostly held by the State Archives and there may be a handy guide to the records held.  Check whatever state you are interested in and read the guide for any hints before starting your research. There is usually a closed access period of 100 years although it varies from State to State."  To read Shauna's full blog entry on asylums, click here.

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