What Caused Insanity?

Probable Causes of Insanity, Missouri State Lunatic Asylum, 1854, courtesy Missouri State Archives

Probable Causes of Insanity, Missouri State Lunatic Asylum, 1854, courtesy Missouri State Archives

The causes for insanity that early alienists compiled can seem amusing–as well as appalling–to modern readers. Almost anything, from disappointment in love, financial reverses, over-study, improper diet, use of alcohol or tobacco, and masturbation could derail mental health, it seemed. However, most of these causes really stemmed from one primary cause: civilization.

An eminent statistician who was deeply interested in insanity, Edward Jarvis, explained that the growth of knowledge, increased comfort, more refined manners, better appreciation of art, opportunities for indulgence, and so on that arose from an advancing civilization, did not themselves lead to mental disorders. However, their effects could.

Edward Jarvis

Edward Jarvis

The astonishing strides in civilization present in the mid-nineteenth century also gave people “more opportunities and rewards for great and excessive mental action, more uncertain and hazardous employments and consequently more disappointments . . . more dangers of accidents and injuries, more groundless hopes, and more painful struggle to obtain that which is beyond reach . . .” The mental anguish these byproducts of civilization could cause created more cases of insanity than possible when people had lived with more limited lives and opportunities.

Many Asylums Were Modeled After Thomas S. Kirkbride's Linear Plan

Many Asylums Were Modeled After Thomas S. Kirkbride’s Linear Plan

Alienists agreed with Jarvis’s premise, and therefore saw a need for more insane asylums and more alienists to meet the needs of a country¬† which was both moving toward an even higher degree of civilization and quickly expanding its population.


Their position seemed to be correct, for most asylums filled up almost as soon as they could be built. While there are many other reasons for the popularity of asylums during the 1840s and beyond, there is no denying that these institutions filled a perceived need within that period’s society.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *