Not hysterical

Women’s mental health and the weight of history

Posted 3/16/21

We’ve come a long way from Rosina Bulwer-Lytton.

She’s the woman who was forcibly committed to an insane asylum despite being completely sane. Her only problem was that she …

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Not hysterical

Women’s mental health and the weight of history


We’ve come a long way from Rosina Bulwer-Lytton.

She’s the woman who was forcibly committed to an insane asylum despite being completely sane. Her only problem was that she threatened her husband’s political career. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame) had her put in a private mental hospital in 1858.

Rosina was released after just a few weeks, according to the Wellcome Trust, but she was lucky. There were many more women, inconvenient in some way or actually ill, who were declared insane and spent years, or the rest of their lives, in asylums.

Modern approaches to mental health care are based less on whether a woman (or man) is in the way and more on whether they are actually ill. But history and its stories resonate. Combine that with how easy it is to forget your own health in the whirl of looking after others, and you could have people who need to seek out care for their psyches—yet they are not.

Here’s another example from history: Joe Lobdell of Delaware County, NY was born as Lucy Ann Lobdell in 1829. According to scholar Bambi Lobdell, a distant cousin, Joe was most likely transgender. After a sometimes-challenging life, he was committed to an insane asylum and remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1912.

“Political dissidents [male and female] got put into psychiatric hospitals,” said Lori Schneider of the Sullivan County branch of the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI). It happened under the Nazis; it happened under the Soviets. (For wretched reading, Google “punitive psychiatry.” Or maybe don’t.) Suffragist Alice Paul was kept in a prison psychiatric ward.

Once people had been committed to an asylum, the care was dreadful. Nellie Bly found that women were soaked in cold baths then left to sit in wet clothes for hours. They were fed rotten meat and moldy bread. Complainers were beaten. At Blackwell’s Hospital, she found women whose only problem was that they didn’t speak English.

Or consider hysteria, which etymology declares a female disease because it comes from the Greek word for uterus. At first, it was a physical disorder caused by problems in the uterus. Freud saw it as a psychiatric disorder. Some hysterical symptoms were later recognized in diseases like bipolar or schizophrenia. Others were reclassified as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, or MS.

All psychiatric diagnoses, Schneider reminds us, “are equal opportunity” both in social class and in gender. Science bears that out.

The sheer volume of stories of women being put in mental hospitals (see, again, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” and the movie “Girl, Interrupted,” not to mention scads of 19th-century novels) suggests that it happened all the time and that institutions were full of women, rightly or wrongly.

But Stroup and Manderscheid crunched numbers at state mental hospitals and found that between 1880 and 1980, “men consistently outnumber[ed] females in admissions for all periods examined.”

When our brains break

Despite truth in numbers, when it comes to women, mental health care is fraught with history. What do you do if you think you might have a psychiatric problem?

First, get past the idea that a malfunctioning brain is somehow a failure of will.

Jerod Poore, at the site, once compared a psychiatric diagnosis to a broken leg. Nobody expects someone with a broken leg to walk on it until it’s better, but those with mental illness are regularly told to buck up.

First comes the fact—yes, the fact—that the brain is an organ that is susceptible to illness, she said.

And because who we are comes from activity in our brains, that means that when the brain is ill, that manifests in our behavior.

It can be hard to realize that there’s a problem when your own brain malfunctions, so you deal with it yourself. You figure it’s your fault somehow or that it is all in your head, as it were.

“People who have a psychiatric diagnosis will self-medicate,” Schneider said. “People who don’t understand feel that [the patient] is ‘less than’ others.”

The way we live can make the decision to seek out care harder.

“Women, in general, tend to be the nurturers, the caregivers,” said Schneider. “We take care of everyone else. We don’t take care of ourselves. You can’t pour from an empty cup.” 

Women nowadays are also more likely to reach out, though they might have to climb over a historical and literary roadblock to do it. She said that women are more likely to report feeling symptoms. “They’re more likely to feel comfortable talking about it.”

That’s a big step forward, but the old prejudices still show up. Witness women with depression, she said, who are scornfully asked “What do you have to worry about?”

Schneider calls it a holdover from the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality—one that needs to go away as both women and men cope with psychiatric diagnoses. After all, she says, “nobody would choose to have a thought disorder or a mood disorder. We all wish we were blissfully ignorant.”

Getting help

“There are so many layers,” said Lori Schneider from NAMI Sullivan County. “Illness and symptoms affect the entire family. How a person perceives the symptoms, how society perceives the symptoms,” all come into play.

For families, “one of the hardest things to do is to get an adult help when they don’t want it. People can be in denial that they have an illness.”

You can start the search with NAMI. It calls itself “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization,” and with resources and support groups, they build understanding and create community for those with a psychiatric diagnosis and their families.

In Sullivan County, NY, contact them at 845/794-1029 or find them on Facebook at NAMI of Sullivan County, NY.

In Orange County, NY, contact by phone at 845/956-6264 and online at

In Wayne and Pike counties in Pennsylvania, find them at NAMI Northeast Region, PA (570/342-1047) or online at

mental health, women, history


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