Opinion — A champion reformer for mental health

Published 6:46 pm Friday, October 1, 2021

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We have begun to erase the stigma in this country about mental illness. It should have never been a stigma concerning this disease. One woman who would be glad that steps are being taken to facilitate this goal is educator and social reformer Dorothea Dix. On April 4, 1802, Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine. She grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the eldest of three children with a religious fanatic father Joseph Dix and mother Mary Bigelow. Eventually at age 12 she went to live with her grandmother in Boston and at age 14 began her teaching career in that city. Even though she suffered with poor health throughout her life Dorothea never let that stop her from advocating for those in need.

Subsequently, in 1821 Dorothea opened the Dix Mansion, a school for destitute girls which operated until 1836. In addition, she wrote textbooks and children’s stories, her most famous entitled Conversations on Common Things which was published in 1824. After visiting with the Rathbone family, who were Quakers and well known social reformers in Liverpool, England, Dorothea learned about a movement by reformers to improve the care of the patients in mental health facilities. Upon returning to the U. S. in 1840 her career, during the antebellum era, involved investigating how the insane poor were cared for in Massachusetts, discovering that many individuals couldn’t care for themselves or lacked the family or friends to do so and with no regulation and underfunding the mental health system resulted in widespread abuse. Unfortunately, subpar treatment extended to the prison system; for example, Dorothea witnessed inmates at the East Cambridge Jail, a women’s prison living in quarters with no heat. She went to court and secured an order to provide adequate heating for the prisoners.

Dorothea’s crusade for the mentally ill encompassed other states such as Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee as well as the countries of Canada and Europe. Her mission was to bring awareness to the inhuman treatment of the mentally ill which resulted in establishing more humane facilities as well as founding or adding on to hospitals. Eventually, in 1845 Dorothea traveled to North Carolina lobbying for mentally ill patient care reform which resulted in the North Carolina State Medical Society being formed. Moreover, the North Carolina state legislature authorized that in the capital of Raleigh a mental institution be built for the mentally ill. In 1856 the Dorthea Dix Hospital opened in the state. Later a second facility Broughton State Hospital in Morganton, North Caroina was opened in 1875 and consequently, the Goldsboro Hospital for the Negro insane opened in the Piedmont area of the segregated state. Although her focus was on the care of the mentally ill she had a biased view that mental illness was related to conditions of the educated whites and not minorities. In fact, Dorothea lobbied for Congress to grant more than 12 million acres of federal land as a public endowment to build facilities for the mentally ill as well as the blind and deaf; both houses of Congress passed it but in 1854 President Franklin Pierce vetoed it citing that the institutions were the states’ responsibility.

Dorothea influenced the nursing field during the U. S. Civil War with the same tenacious and single-minded independent thinking that championed the mentally ill. She was appointed Superintendent of Army nurses by the Union Army during the War. Dorothea worked with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female doctor. Under her leadership stringent guidelines were initiated: volunteers were to be 35 to 50 years old, uniforms were unhooped black or brown dressed, no jewelry or makeup and plain looking Furthermore, Dorothea was responsible for setting up field hospitals and first-aid stations, hiring nurses, managing supplies and setting up training of nurses. Not surprising, the army doctors didn’t want to work with the nurses. In August 1863 she resigned from her position; it did not help that she had a racial and religious biases toward Catholic, Irish and German nurses who served successfully as army nurses. Although unbecoming of a social activist her equality of care for both Union and Confederate soldiers secured her remembrance in the South.

After the War Dorothea’s health deteriorated, yet she kept up the fight for the mentally ill. Sadly, at the age of 85 she died on July 17, 1887, at the New Jersey State Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey where she lived in a private suite designated for her since 1881. In fact, she founded that hospital. Her resting place is in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts Among her honors are a U. S. Postage Stamp, Great American Service Stamp and the Bangor Mental Health Institute renamed after her in 2006. Today we surely can see that we desperately need to have adequate mental health services for all to seek assistance when necessary. We have lost too many loved ones. For all those that need it, ask for help. It is available.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at The Central High Museum lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.