The histories of mental illness and disability are closely linked. This is because our understanding of conditions such as epilepsy, depression, insanity, cerebral palsy, speech problems and learning disabilities was different in the past. Most early county asylums received patients presenting a wide range of these conditions as doctors and attendants tried to identify the cause of illnesses, treat symptoms and provide necessary care.
Although most of the documents we hold at the Surrey History Centre were created by the people charged with caring for patients and not written by the patients themselves, these fascinating records still allow us to trace the ways in which care was provided from the early eighteenth century until almost the present day.
Just as the documents show how treatment has changed over the centuries, they also contain the words used at the time to describe different conditions. The word ‘Asylum’ was understood to mean a place of care and refuge, although it was later replaced by hospital, sanitorium or institution. Many of the terms used in the documents are now termed as offensive and can be hard for some people to read. Diagnoses and descriptions of illness have changed quite radically over the years and so it is important to remember that, by using terms such as ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘defective’ and labelling conditions as ‘mania’ or ‘melancholy’, the doctors were not being deliberately offensive. These were the ‘politically correct terms’ of their day, laid down by the 1844 Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy.
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