Language Barriers

Public Health Service Staff Inspecting Immigrants. All idiots, insane persons, etc. were to be excluded from the country, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Public Health Service Staff Inspecting Immigrants. All idiots, insane persons, etc. were to be excluded from the country, courtesy National Institutes of Health

As asylums grew larger and lost their ability to integrate mentally ill or temporarily distraught citizens back into society, they became warehouses for people who could not cope with or mesh into the current culture. Most asylums assumed a custodial role, rather than a therapeutic one.

Asylum superintendents noted early on that immigrants made up a larger proportion of the “insane” than native born peoples did, and usually attributed that situation to the inferiority of immigrant minds rather than to their own cultural snobbery or misconceptions (see last post).

A Six-Man Jury Declared Koslowski Insane in 1911

A Six-Man Jury Declared Koslowski Insane in 1911

Though it undoubtedly happened, most asylum patients who could not speak English were not simply lifted from the streets and thrown into asylums. Usually a complaint about the person’s behavior came from someone, and then further questioning would make it apparent to authorities that the person before them did not adhere to societal expectations.

Many sane immigrants were caught in this net, unable to explain themselves well because they lacked language skills, or too intimidated by what they considered foreign (and formidable) authorities to defend themselves. Interpreters may or may not have been used, but considering that many white Americans went  before a sanity board without benefit of a formal defense, it is easy to believe that most immigrants stood on their own or with dubious help from others.

Eloise Insane Asylum in Detroit, 1911

Eloise Insane Asylum in Detroit, 1911

Native Americans who could not speak English well were also vulnerable to these kinds of abuses. A bigoted sanity board would not consider cultural differences, and language barriers would only make the Native American look ignorant or mentally deficient. If the accused lost his temper or gave in to emotional turmoil, he made himself look worse. Many patients were railroaded into insane asylums, but the most vulnerable patients were those who fell outside traditional Anglo-based American culture.

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One thought on “Language Barriers

  1. Lisa Sullivan Taisey

    Very informative post! Reminded me of my g grandmother in her late 30’s , an Italian immigrant , little English and most likely female problems. Wonder if she was judged worse because she was a FEMALE IMMIGRANT compared to a MALE Indian? Either way its very tragic.

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