These Days, Work Stress, Postnatal Depression and Anxiety Are Addressed with Compassion. but Just a Few Generations Ago the Women above, Who Suffered from These Conditions, Were Confined to an Asylum

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Byline: Report WENDY WALLACE

The compelling portraits shown above, taken by Victorian photographer Henry Hering in the mid 19th century, have a haunting quality. But apart from the women's pensive expressions and drab clothing, there is little to indicate that the photographs had been taken in an asylum. If you took away the period gowns and hairstyles, their mournful faces might be looking out of the window of a bus or cafe today.

Then, however, women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions - from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity ('moral insanity').

These photographic records exist because some influential doctors, including keen photographer Dr Hugh Diamond, believed that the then new science of photography could help to diagnose mental illness by capturing what he called the 'exact point that had been reached in the scale of unhappiness'. The idea that your face could be used to read your mind - and that how you looked in a photo could determine your fate - fascinated and horrified me. I was already interested in mental health. As in most families, there have been mental health issues in mine. In the late 1960s, my gentle grandmother was plunged into a serious depression after the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack. A daring and sporty young woman, who grew up in a lively family, she found the loneliness and grief of widowhood in her 50s unbearable.

I was 11 or 12 when she became ill; the stigma around mental distress was stronger than it is now and my parents tried to protect me from it. But I noticed how Gran's round shape changed to a drastically reduced outline and was aware of my parents' worried conversations about her, of emergency phone calls and sudden dashes to see her in hospital, where, I later found out, she was admitted more than once after attempts on her own life.

could insane My grandmother's grief might today be recognised as such, and treated with bereavement locked for counselling rather than being labelled 'depression', as it was in the 60s, and treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She never mentioned the treatment to me and I can only imagine that it increased her sense of isolation. She was helped by moving to a new village to be near her sister, where she acquired new friends and a beloved dalmatian.

However horrific the idea of ECT seems to my generation, which associates it with the shocking scenes in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how much worse, I wondered, would her situation have been 100 years earlier. I started further research into the subject of women in Victorian find and asylums and learnt that much of the mental health provision then was still in private houses, often run by nonmedical men who did little more than keep patients locked away. With their living coming from the profit, there was little incentive to discharge patients who could be detained.

up infidelity Anyone who could persuade two doctors to sign certificates of insanity

could put away inconvenient or embarrassing relatives in a madhouse. Women - with lower social status, and usually less power and money - were more vulnerable.

In the archive of Bethlem Hospital (once popularly known as Bedlam) I found original prints of female patients, made by photographer Henry Hering, who worked at the hospital in the 1850s. Matching their handwritten case notes to their photographs was a powerful experience. These women seemed very close, their distressing plight very real.

When I came across the story of Elizabeth Thew, admitted to Bethlem from prison after supposedly murdering her two-month-old baby, my blood ran cold. A sweet-faced woman, neatly dressed and holding an enormous piece of white lacework, Elizabeth looked out of her photograph with a resigned half-smile. According to her notes, she was not mentally ill at all but suffered from severe epileptic fits. …