Treatment of Mental Illness

Henry Melville, 'Invalid Hospital, New Norfolk', 1833 (W.L. Crowther Library)

Prior to 1827 the mentally ill were sent to New South Wales for management, but in that year they started to be incarcerated in a New Norfolk asylum. This accommodated both 'pauper invalids' and 'lunatics' under military administration; by 1830 there were 70 patients. In 1855 the colonial government took it over and excluded the invalids. No effective treatment was available in that era. After other asylums closed (those of Port Arthur in 1877, Cascades in 1890 and the asylum of the Hobart Hospital in 1893) their occupants were transferred to the New Norfolk asylum (then the only general mental hospital in the state), then called the Hospital for the Insane. In the early twentieth century this became known as the Mental Diseases Hospital, in 1938 Lachlan Park, and in 1968 the Royal Derwent Hospital.

Electro-convulsive therapy was introduced in the 1930s and anti-psychotic medication in the 1950s. From then on some patients could be treated and discharged, leading to the establishment of mental health services in the community. After the formation of the Mental Health Services Commission in 1967, government-employed psychiatrists were placed in Launceston, Burnie and Devonport. Psychiatrists from the psychiatric hospital (the Royal Derwent) at New Norfolk began working in a community setting at New Town's John Edis Hospital, a psychiatric ward was established in the Royal Hobart Hospital and a forensic specialist was placed at Risdon Prison. Private psychiatry also grew during this era.

The process of 'de-institutionalisation' of the deteriorated Royal Derwent Hospital started in the 1970s. In 1983, after the last of many official inquiries, this movement gathered pace but the Hospital was not closed until 2001. In the last two decades there has been strong growth in community services with the placement of outpatient clinics and day centres in all the major urban areas. The Mental Health Services Commission was abolished in 1990 and its functions and staff absorbed into the state Health Department.

Further reading: R Gowlland, Troubled asylum, New Norfolk, 1981.

John Tooth