Mental Illness and Toddlers

While researching lunatic asylums for my book about Blackwell’s Island, I came across a brief reference to what I thought was a very bizarre case. “A little girl, three years and four months old, evincing unequivocal symptoms of mental disorder, was admitted in the early part of the year. The mental disorder was recent. This case, so interesting on account of the age and mental peculiarities, still continues under treatment.” That’s all it says. There are no details or descriptions of the disorder. But it comes from the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital in 1853, from the notes of Dr. John Curwen, Superintendent.

At first I got all judge-y about about diagnosing a toddler, and of course it was a little girl vs a boy. But apparently toddlers aren’t diagnosed enough, under the mistaken belief that children don’t develop disorders that early. According to the article in that link, they can.

Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

2 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Toddlers

  1. My intuition tells me that of course babies can suffer from mental illness. This shows the prejudice against all forms of mental problems, that people believe they are caused by personal failings on the part of the sufferer. We allow for a range of normal when it comes to physical problems but it is quite narrow for things like missing limbs and diabetes. You either have the problem or you don’t. Mental issues have a much larger range of normal but this isn’t easily acknowledged. We want other people to be like us and when they aren’t, it’s a problem. This applies to ethnicity too. It never mattered what colour a person’s skin was but some people decided it did matter and so they invented races and gave people an excuse for bigotry. Looking for difference in others is part of what we do as humans, but using difference as a weapon is counter-productive. We should only concern ourselves with mental problems in others when those problems prevent them from enjoying life or cause them to be a danger to themselves or others.

  2. Very very very good points. When you put it that way, of course babies can suffer from mental illness! This should have occurred to me!!

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