10 rea­sons for lu­nacy – from tea drink­ing to in­ter-mar­riage

Ar­ti­cle in ‘The Ir­ish Times’ re­veals sur­pris­ing views about men­tal health at start of 20th cen­tury

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Archives - Louise Ní Chríodáin

In­ter-mar­riage, in­fluenza, tea drink­ing and pota­toes were all once blamed for men­tal health is­sues, our ar­chives re­veal.

A 1901 re­port, The In­crease of Lu­nacy in Ire­land, com­pared cen­sus re­turns from 1851 and 1891, show­ing “nearly three times as many lu­natics both at large, and in asy­lums, in the lat­ter year”.

Our re­porter added: “Since the year 1891 we have had a con­stant and well-marked in­crease in the num­ber of ‘reg­is­tered lu­natics’.”

Le­gally, a “lu­natic” was de­fined to mean any per­son “found by in­qui­si­tion id­iot, lu­natic, or of un­sound mind, and in­ca­pable of man­ag­ing him­self or his af­fairs”.

Our cor­re­spon­dent went on to enu­mer­ate pop­u­lar the­o­ries for this in­crease. The re­sult­ing 117-year-old lis­ti­cle, gives an in­di­ca­tor of some of the un­en­light­ened – and sur­pris­ing – views about men­tal health at the start of the 20th cen­tury.

“The fol­low­ing are the rea­sons usu­ally as­signed for the spread of in­san­ity in Ire­land . . .

1 Poverty, and hence poor and in­nu­tri­tious food

“It has long been recog­nised by the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion that in one pre­dis­posed to ner­vous ail­ments or in­san­ity any­thing which causes a great low­er­ing of the vi­tal­ity of the in­di­vid­u­als tends to pro­duce these evils, or to ag­gra­vate them if once pro­duced. In Ire­land the poorer classes are of­ten very badly fed, and have to work very hard, and the com­bi­na­tion of these two cir­cum­stances so low­ers their vi­tal­ity that they read­ily be­come a prey to var­i­ous forms of neu­roses or ner­vous com­plaints.”

2 Hered­ity

“The chil­dren of in­sane par­ents are of­ten them­selves in­sane, and also the chil­dren of par­ents who, though not in­sane, are yet ec­cen­tric, or per­haps drunk­ards or epilep­tics, of­ten de­velop in­san­ity. The off­springs of un­sound, im­per­fectly de­vel­oped, or de­gen­er­ate par­ents are li­able to show signs of in­san­ity.

“Now, as the emi­grant pop­u­lar of Ire­land is very large, and as those who leave the coun­try are for the most part strong and healthy in­di­vid­u­als be­tween the ages of 18 to 30 years, it fol­lows that only the weaker or the old and more de­gen­er­ate are left be­hind to prop­a­gate the race, and hence the greater ten­dency to all kinds of neu­roses and in­san­ity.”

3 Too much in­ter-mar­ry­ing

“In districts where fam­i­lies in­ter-marry to any great ex­tent in­san­ity is surely pro­duced, and this holds good in sev­eral districts in Ire­land. In the Barony of Forth, for ex­am­ple, near the town of Wex­ford, the peo­ple form a colony as it were of them­selves, and rarely mix with out­siders, and in­ter-mar­riages have been go­ing on for some con­sid­er­able time, with the re­sult that in­san­ity is in this district ex­ceed­ingly com­mon.”

4 Anx­i­eties and the cares and wor­ries of life

“In the strug­gle for life which ex­ists nowa­days, when we live at such a high pres­sure, and when ed­u­ca­tion is pushed amongst the poorer classes to such an extreme ex­tent – in many cases mak­ing com­pe­ti­tion for the var­i­ous ap­point­ments, etc, so very keen and se­vere that it taxes the strengths of the very fittest amongst us – we find a most dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect pro­duced upon high­lystrung and ner­vous in­di­vid­u­als, and in this con­stant strain we find a cause which is re­spon­si­ble for many cases of in­san­ity which are met with.”

5 Al­co­hol

“This as a cause of gen­eral in­san­ity has been very much over-rated. It is an easy way out of a dif­fi­culty some­times to say that drink has been the cause of a case of in­san­ity. No doubt, the chil­dren of drunken par­ents are of­ten pre­dis­posed to in­san­ity, but few cases are di­rectly trace­able to drink. It of­ten hap­pens that when a man’s rea­son is tot­ter­ing in the bal­ance if he has the op­por­tu­nity he will take to drink or other forms of vice, but these can­not be said to be the cause of in­san­ity – the in­san­ity is rather the cause of them.”

6 The Puer­peral State (af­ter child-birth)

“This cause of in­san­ity is for­tu­nately a fairly rare one, and where met with is usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by some other pre­dis­pos­ing cause, such as in­sane hered­ity, or a low­ered and greatly weak­ened con­sti­tu­tion from poor liv­ing, too long nurs­ing af­ter pre­vi­ous preg­nan­cies, a too rapid suc­ces­sion of preg­nan­cies, or pos­si­bly sep­sis (blood poi­son­ing).

7 Cer­tain dis­eases

“. . . such as gout, syphilis and rheuma­tism, have been said to pre­dis­pose to in­san­ity, but their ac­tion in this mat­ter is far from be­ing proven, and more­over, we have no ev­i­dence of their in­crease dur­ing re­cent years.

“In­fluenza, which has cer­tainly been very preva­lent dur­ing re­cent years, has been ac­count­able for a few cases of in­san­ity, and may eas­ily act as a pre­dis­pos­ing cause by rea­son of the great weak­ness and pros­tra­tion which it so of­ten oc­ca­sions.”

8 The use of cer­tain bev­er­ages

“Ex­ces­sive use of tea or of cof­fee has been said to pre­dis­pose to in­san­ity, but their ac­tion, if any, is but slight and unim­por­tant.”

9 The use of cer­tain drugs and smok­ing

“The use of drugs, such as co­caine, opium, etc, and ex­ces­sive smok­ing, from the nico­tine con­tained in to­bacco, has been re­spon­si­ble for a cer­tain num­ber of cases of in­san­ity. But in Ire­land these causes do no op­er­ate largely, and they can hardly be said to be re­spon­si­ble in any way for the re­cent in­crease of lu­nacy in the coun­try.”


The use of cer­tain foods in ex­cess

“It has been said that the ex­ces­sive use of cer­tain kinds of food has pro­duced in­san­ity, and es­pe­cially of too much starch food. Pota­toes may be men­tioned in this con­nec­tion, as the ba­sis of the chief meal of the day is in many parts of Ire­land ‘the pratie’. This cause may op­er­ate by low­er­ing the gen­eral con­di­tion of the pa­tients, and should there­fore re­ally be classed un­der the above head­ing of ‘poverty and poor feed­ing.’ The same can be said of the agri­cul­tural de­pres­sion in Ire­land, which has pro­duced much poverty with its at­ten­dant train of evils.

“To sum­marise the whole sit­u­a­tion it may be said that the in­crease of lu­nacy . . . may be looked for in the in­creased poverty of the peo­ple . . . When the fight for life is less keen than it is at present, and our lot more peace­able, then, and then only, may be hope to marked de­crease in the num­bers of those who are un­for­tu­nately find their way into asy­lums la­belled ‘in­sane’.”

Al­co­hol as a cause of gen­eral in­san­ity was de­scribed as be­ing “very much over-rated”. A 1901 re­port,

The In­crease of Lu­nacy in Ire­land, com­pared cen­sus re­turns from 1851 and 1891, show­ing “nearly three times as many lu­natics both at large, and in asy­lums, in the lat­ter year”

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