Family | The Pressing Need for Asylums  |  A Family in Crisis . . . why Commital?

The public asylums of 19th century Ontario provided a structured environment in which a person could make a concentrated effort to recover. While there was an emphasis on speedy recoveries, the asylum also functioned as a lifelong care centre for people unable to make a full recovery. Asylums allowed an institutional alternative to the family home for those seeking help in caring for a mentally ill person. Asylums also provided a convenient opportunity to relieve the burden of responsibility from families unable or unwilling to cope with the challenges of mental illness.

Before the establishment of the public asylums, those suffering with mental illness were often relegated to local jails, workhouses, or a life on the streets, if the family was unable to provide the care needed within the home. With the advent of asylums, there was a place where the family could choose to play an active role in the recovery process through visits, written correspondence, and frequent updates.

Although in some cases family contact was severed and the patient was left somewhat isolated from the outside world, it is impossible to separate the role of the family from the asylum when looking at the evolution of mental health care. Family roles in the decades following the establishment of the London Asylum for the Insane changed to represent the Victorian industrial ideal, which focused on the individual work ethic as a measure of personal success or failure within the family unit. Despite this shift, support from the family continued to play a significant role in the asylum process.

While mental illness was certainly not a new concern, Victorian society generated new views and opinions concerning mental health and the function of asylums. Due to the continued involvement of families in patient treatment and care, a more intimate understanding of the asylum's purpose was developed within the community. While still a place which created curiosity among the public, many people knew family members or friends who had been treated at the asylum. They slowly began to understand what exactly it was that the asylum was trying to accomplish and how this was being done. The essential role of family and community care cannot be understated as it was very often the family who had cared for the patient before committal and upon release.