Dorothea Dix’s advocacy on behalf of people experiencing mentally illness was inspired in part by her own experience with major depression. When several bouts of illness ended her career as a teacher, doctors encouraged her to travel to Europe in search of a cure. It was there that she met reformers who shared her interest in changing the way mental illness was treated. Her work would challenge opinions about mental illness and dramatically change the medical field.
Upon her return to Massachusetts, Dix worked as a Sunday school teacher at the East Cambridge Jail, a women’s prison. The conditions she witnessed were appalling — particularly for those experiencing mental illness, who were abused and ostracized in a dark, foul basement alongside criminalized people. She launched a statewide investigation on the treatment of mental illness, traveling to prisons and poorhouses to document her findings. She published a scathing report and testified before the Massachusetts legislature:
“I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten….men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the most unconcerned would start with real horror; of beings wretched in our prisons, and more wretched in our almshouses.”
The Massachusetts legislature agreed to finance the expansion of the State Mental Hospital at Worcester, but Dix was not content to stop there. She helped usher in similar reforms in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina.
She spearheaded the Land-Grant Bill For Indigent Insane Persons, which would have earmarked 12 million acres of land to establish asylums for people who were considered unable to care for themselves at the time. It passed both houses of Congress before being vetoed by President Franklin Pierce, who claimed that social welfare was a states’ issue. Discouraged by this defeat, she spent the next several years helping to pass similar reforms in the United Kingdom and Canada.
When the Civil War broke out, Dix volunteered her services and was appointed superintendent of nurses for the Union Army, where she was instrumental in advancing the role of nurses in the war and in the medical field. She continued to fight for the rights of people experiencing mental illness for the rest of her life. She lived out her final years in a private suite held for her at a New Jersey hospital she had helped establish 40 years earlier.