Mental Illness is still a taboo topic in the United States even though 57.7 million Americans experience a mental health disorder every year. Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children receive mental health services in a given year. Though there are strides to make healthcare more accessible to people with mental illness, there was time when they were locked away in jails, chained to walls, sexually assaulted, and starved. For centuries, this was how the mentally ill were taken care of until the 1800’s. There is one person responsible for mental illness reform; her name is Dorothea Lynde Dix.
Dorothea Dix was born in Hampden, Maine on April 4, 1802. She had an unhappy childhood because her mother suffered from depression while her father was an alcoholic priest who traveled a lot, so it was up to Dix to take care of her younger brothers. Her father did manage to teach her how to read and write. When she was 12, she moved to Boston to live with her wealthy grandmother. Her grandmother was strict and punished Dix when Dix donated her new expensive clothes to the poor children on the street. Dix became a teacher at the age of 15, opening a school in her grandmother’s mansion. In her spare time, she wrote books for adolescents. In 1836, Dix stopped teaching due to frequent illness and traveled to Europe with friends. Though she was supposed to be relaxing, she met social reformers investigating asylums and she returned to the Untied States to see how her own state dealt with the mentally ill.
In 1841, Dix volunteered to teach a Sunday School class for women inmates at the East Cambridge jail. At the jail, she saw that prostitutes, mentally ill, and criminals were all housed together in dirty conditions. When she asked why the jail was in a terrible condition, she was told that “the insane do not feel heat or cold.” Dix traveled throughout Massachusetts, documenting how the mentally ill were treated in each town. She saw prisoners being whipped, staved, chained, physically abused, and sexually abused by other inmates and guards. The prisoners were often naked without heat or sanitation. She presented her documentation to the Massachusetts legislation and convinced them to set aside funds for the expansion of a state mental hospital in Worcester. Dix traveled to Rhode Island, New York, and other states repeating her process; she help found 32 mental hospitals, a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses. When she was done with the United States, she traveled to Europe to help the mentally ill.
She returned to the United States in 1854 to travel to states she had missed, but the Civil War interrupted her goal of mental illness reform. She was appointed the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses, the first woman to serve in such a high capacity in a federally appointed role. President Lincoln asked her to appoint a nurse to take care of his sick son, Tad, who had fallen ill after his brother Willie died. Dix appointed Nurse Rebecca Pomeroy, who provided care to Tad while comforting Lincoln. Dix clashed with army officials and was feared by her female nurses, so she submitted her resignation in August 1865.
After the war, she returned to work as a social reformer until 1881 when the New Jersey State Hospital in Morris Plaines opened. This hospital was the first one created built because of Dix, so she checked herself in due to her poor health. She died on July 17, 1887 at the hospital. Dix never wanted hospitals to be named after her, embarrassed of being praised for her work, but it should be known that it is because of her that people now know that the mentally ill are humans and deserved to be treated as such.