Today is World Mental Health Day, and this year is a landmark anniversary. First held in 1992, today is the 25th day dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues, and to fighting the still-associated stigma. The Poor House, which opened in 1774 became a safe haven to many suffering from mental health problems long before the conditions were fully understood.
The Belfast Charitable Society had not envisaged that the Poor House would take people with severe mental health problems, however because of a lack of any viable alternative they felt it necessary to provide some level of care. In January 1802 it was ordered that “2 rooms in this house be appropriated for the reception of such deranged persons as belong to & have resided 2 years, in this Town.” Pressure was constantly applied to the Poor House to take more and more cases. By the summer of 1802, rooms were also prepared in the belfry of Clifton House to provide more accommodation specifically for those with mental health problems. By 1810 it was necessary to move the very severe cases to Grangegorman in Dublin, who it was felt had the correct facilities to deal with the most ill patients. In 1819, the Belfast Charitable Society wrote to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland requesting that a purpose built mental health hospital be constructed in Belfast. It opened in 1829 on the Grosvenor Road, not far from the current site of the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Within the Poor House, they were much better equipped to deal with mild and moderate mental health cases. The circumstances which brought people to the Poor House would have had fundamental consequences for their mental health. Stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and even post-traumatic stress disorder could have all been the reality for the residents of the Poor House. Adults arrived at the Poor House destitute for many reasons, children came with a parent, or in most cases alone, either abandoned or orphaned.
The Poor House improved diet and introduced exercise, education and industry as the key components to improving the overall health of the residents. With little scientific evidence, the Belfast Charitable Society saw the huge improvements they could make to people’s lives by using this formula. Almost 250 years later, research still demonstrates the importance of these core principles in good mental health care.