MindOut celebrates LGBT+ History Month in time-honoured fashion by commemorating the brilliant work of their predecessor, Helen Boyle, who was a mental health pioneer who laid the foundations for MindOut.
Many years later we continue to be immensely grateful for her work and her foresight.
Helen was way ahead of her time, a feminist physician and psychiatrist. She was Brighton’s first female GP, the first female psychiatrist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and the first female president of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association (now the Royal College of Psychiatrists).
Born in 1869, she transformed the lives of working class women in Brighton & Hove through her groundbreaking approach to understanding and treating the effects of mental distress. As a young doctor she arrived in Brighton in 1897 having worked in London’s East End which had given her first-hand experience of the mental and physical effects of poverty on women.
Determined to provide medical services to women she set up the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women & Children with Dr Mabel Jones in the then deprived area of Hanover. The dispensary offered free or low-cost treatment to women who couldn’t afford GPs’ charges, provided by and for women only. The Dispensary depended on the help of wealthy female benefactors, many of them suffragettes. Their clinic was a huge success.
Why was mental illness seemingly more common amongst the poor? Was tooth decay one of the causes of mental illness? Were housemaids more prone to mental illness than other servants? Should ‘defectives’ be sterilised to prevent the transmission of corrupted seed to future generations? Were poverty and prostitution the result of wickedness, or were they forms of ‘moral illness’? These were some of the issues raised at meetings of the Lunacy Commission, but the more Helen Boyle saw, the more convinced she became that not only was mental illness often an outcome of bread line poverty, but that it could easily be stopped in its tracks if caught early enough. It was, she came to believe, very often preventable.
Helen believed if ‘nervous disease’ could be identified early enough it could be prevented from developing into an incurable disability. In this, she was well ahead of her time, and in those days there was no real interest in the prevention of mental illness that might be caused by poverty and social distress.
In those days, if you could not pay for private care, the only way to qualify for state help was to be ‘certified insane’ and put in an asylum. Nothing was done to address the needs of those either not ill enough for the locked ward, or not yet ill enough, a situation which has changed less than might be hoped for in all the years since.
In 1905, Helen secured funding from Lady Chichester of Stanmer House, and transformed the Lewes Road Dispensary into the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women & Children With Early Nervous Disease in order to provide essential in-patient care for women in poverty, before they became certifiable. This hospital was also run by women for women.
The Lady Chichester Hospital later moved to Aldrington House in Hove, which remained a mental health day centre for the next 89 years. Helen Boyle went on to be the co-founder of Mind, the National Association for Mental Health.
Helen’s work, continued by Mind, has revolutionised how we view mental health, the politics of mental health, the social and economic causes of mental distress and the empowerment of those in need of support. Without her work, organisations like MindOut would not exist.
Looking back, we wonder how much has changed since Helen’s time. At MindOut we are desperately concerned at the rise in people in economic hardship who are struggling with their mental health. We are supporting far more people who are hungry, who can’t afford to heat their homes, who have or are about to lose their homes, who are struggling to make ends meet.
Unlike Helen’s times we do have an NHS which provides mental health services, and we have community groups offering a range of support. But none of these are secure, funding is being reduced considerably, at a time when need is on the increase. These are worrying times for mental health.
If you would like to know more or get involved, please do contact MindOut (details below), or see Mind’s website: www.mind.org.uk.
As for Helen, as well as receiving professional acclaim in the medical sector, she was honoured for her war work in Serbia in 1915. She lived in Pyecombe for the last 17 years of her life with Marguerite du Pre Gore Lindsay, dying aged 88 in 1957. She has a Brighton & Hove bus named after her.
MindOut offers a range of confidential, independent, free and person-centred support run by and for LGBTQ people with lived experience of mental health issues. Please do contact us with any mental health concern, mental health query or to discuss your experiences of mental health issues.
We offer advice and information, advocacy, peer support group work, peer mentoring, workshops and courses, online out of hours support and anti-stigma campaigning.
• Call 01273 234839
• email firstname.lastname@example.org
• find us online, www.mindout.org.uk, to access online support.
MindOut at B Right On Festival:
• Please join us on Thursday, February 9 at the B-Right-On Festival at the Phil Starr Pavilion. MindOut staff and volunteers will be available all day. Come and find out more about mental health and our upcoming groups and courses. All welcome.
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