Mental Health Compassion In Action: Dorothea Dix


March is Women's History Month in the U.S. Dorothea Dix is one of history’s movers and shakers in the world of mental health.

When Dix died in 1887, her legacy included 32 new state hospitals for the mentally ill. Many existing institutions were expanded and staffed with caring, well-trained employees.

Dix’s advocacy for the mentally ill began halfway through her life. When teaching Sunday school in 1841 at the East Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts, she became aware of the appalling treatment of the mentally ill housed there. They survived in unheated and filthy conditions. Some of the men, women, and children had no clothing; some were chained to a wall.

What Dix saw prompted her to spend a couple of years visiting other mental health facilities in Massachusetts, writing down the inhumane treatment and suffering she witnessed. The state legislature received a detailed report from Dix that instigated expansion and improvements at the Worcester Insane Asylum - the first of many Dix-related reforms.

Not Grandma’s Favorite

Until the age of 12, Dix lived with her parents and two younger brothers. Her mother was considered mentally slow and the father, Joseph, was an abusive alcoholic. Joseph made a meager living as an itinerant preacher, but he gave his daughter the priceless gift of literacy.

The three children went to Boston in 1814 to live with their well-off grandmother. Dix’s inclination to help those with less clashed with her grandmother’s elegant lifestyle. Her grandmother was not pleased when she gave much of her new clothing to poor children. After a couple of years, Dix moved to Worcester and lived with her aunt; she was 14.

Teacher, Writer, and a Little Romance

Dix was diagnosed with tuberculosis when she was 22 years old. Until that time, she had used her resources to educate girls and young women in schools she established. For a while she was engaged to her second cousin, Edward Bangs, and moved back to Boston to be with him. When Dix’s father passed away, she broke-off the engagement.

In the years following her TB diagnosis, Dorothea convalesced, wrote short stories for children and a book called Conversations on Common Things. Both her grandmother and mother died. She created and ran a secondary school in her house and lived in England for two years.

After resettling in Boston, Dix received an inheritance that would allow her to relax and live comfortably for the remainder of her life. However, Dix was not wired for a life of relaxation.

Advocate, Supervisor, Advocate

After Dix toured the Massachusetts mental health institutions she just kept going and visited asylums in other states and in Canada, speaking out for reforms.

A bill she helped push through Congress was vetoed by President Pierce in 1854. It would have given states 12.25 million acres of land to benefit people who were blind, deaf, dumb, or insane. After this defeat, Dix moved to England. She continued working for the welfare of the mentally ill in Europe, Japan, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Dix came back to the U.S. and served as superintendent of women nurses during the Civil War. Supervising, it turned out, was not one of Dix’s many talents. She did not have good middle-management people skills.

However, being an able administrator, she completed the assignment in her own, some would say, difficult manner. It is easy to imagine that today Dorothea Dix would be an authoritative CEO of a nonprofit organization.

She [Dix] is energetic, benevolent, unselfish, and a mild case of monomania. Working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her, for she belongs to the class of comets and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever. ~ George Templeton Strong

After the war, Dix went back to her advocacy work for another 20 years. She found allies in her former fiance Edward Bangs and in President Millard Fillmore, who also considered Dix a friend. At the age of 83, Dix took up residence in one of the facilities she had helped establish and died there a couple of years later.


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