Nowadays, society has a much better understanding of mental health and how to respond to and treat mental illnesses. The current attitude towards mental health would not be possible without the extensive social reforms during the 19th century. Women made major contributions to social reforms during that era. Specifically, regarding mental health, Dorothea Dix had a major influence on changing how mental illness is perceived by the public.
Dorothea Dix was born in Maine to an extremely religious father who made Dix stitch together religious tracts (Biography). By the age of twelve, Dix moved in with her grandmother in Boston to leave the strict life that her father led. By the age of fourteen, Dix was teaching in Worcester while she lived with her aunt. After she returned to Boston, she founded her own charity school for girls at the age of seventeen. Her school was called Dix Mansion and allowed girls of poor socioeconomic status to gain an education. Furthering her academic endeavors, Dix began to write textbooks, including her most famous work, Conversations on Common Things, which was published in 1824.
Advocate of Education
As Dix began to educate herself beyond the expectations of society, and as a natural-born teacher, she moved her interests into the realm of mental health. In 1841, she began teaching Sunday school at a women’s prison where she discovered the harsh treatment of prisoners, especially those who were mentally ill. Additionally, the prisoners did not receive any heat in their cells. Upon making this discovery, Dix successfully secured a court order to improve the living conditions at this prison. However, this event would alter the path of her life and her ambitions.
Transition to Psychiatric Reform
Dix proceeded to travel around Massachusetts to research the living conditions of prisons and observe the treatment of prisoners so that she could protest the conditions and advocate for change. Another major achievement following the individual prison reform was the legislative approval to expand the State Mental Hospital at Worcester. However, Dix wanted to fix the state of psychiatry all over the world, not just Massachusetts, so she made her way around the whole country, taking notes about the treatment of prisoners and psychiatric patients. During this time, mental health was not nearly as studied and understood as it is today, so those who were mentally ill were unfortunately unlikely to be treated as human beings.
The establishment of asylums for the mentally ill is no doubt accredited to Dorothea Dix because one of her main motives was to better treat the mentally ill so that they received the proper rehabilitation. In general, she wanted to reform prisons, so that prisoners were treated with more kindness. To spread her ideas everywhere, she also traveled to Europe simply to share her plans and research with the prisons and hospitals there.
Her Role in the Civil War
Her tour through Europe was cut short as she had to return to the United States to volunteer to serve in the Civil War as a Union nurse (Norwood). She had many responsibilities in her role as a Superintendent of Army Nurses, but she made it a point to treat both Confederate and Union soldiers, an act which many considered to be respectable. During the time, female nurses were looked down upon by the male doctors and were treated as lesser than their male counterparts. Experiencing this sexism in the medical field, Dix also pushed for gender equality, specifically for nurses.
Dix Was a Psychiatric Pioneer
The evolution of mental health awareness would not be what it is today if it were not for Dorothea Dix. A forerunner of gender equality and social reform, she did not let anyone stop her from doing what she knew was right. As we acknowledge the importance of normalizing mental health awareness, we also have to acknowledge the impact of Dorothea Dix on this awareness and the improvements of treatments for those affected.