Institutional solutions to the problem of insanity were sought by Port Phillip's colonial authorities. Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum was the first institution in the colony to house sufferers of madness, under the Dangerous Lunatics Act (1843). The first women and men to become inmates of Yarra Bend were transferred from gaol in October 1848, and the Argus newspaper reported that two of these 'shed tears' upon 'leaving their old abode'. Yarra Bend was the only asylum until 1867, when Victoria's first Lunacy Statute was enacted and two asylums in rural locations at Ararat and Beechworth were opened. Kew Asylum, also known as the Metropolitan Asylum, followed in 1871.
Inmates in colonial asylums were often persons whose situations threatened public order. Vagrancy and alcoholism contributed to the asylum population. Symptoms of insanity included 'protracted sleeplessness', 'persistent headache', and 'great depression or exaltation of spirits without sufficient cause'. Public behaviour which was noticeably unusual led to the appellation of conditions such as 'bush mania'.
Melbourne's public asylums soon became crowded. The growing number of asylum inmates was used as a gauge of the extent of mental illness in the community, yet it also reflected the increasing confidence in the asylum system. In 1870 Victoria's population had risen to 738 200, and 1 in 397 persons was judged to be insane. Some public anxiety about Chinese lunatics was reflected in the Asylum Inspectors' Report of 1870. By the 1880s Victoria had earned the dubious title of 'maddest colony'. In 1888 there were 3634 registered insane persons in Victoria. Men outnumbered women by a small margin but there were also more men in the colonial population.
An explanation for the increasing numbers of the insane, stated in the 19th century and also often articulated by historians, is the dynamic at work in the formation of the social world in the early days of the colony. It was reasoned that Medical Superintendent Robert Bowie was unable to institute the model asylum in the early days at Yarra Bend because he arrived in the colony of Victoria when 'owing to the gold mania, people were in a considerable state of excitement; society had not settled down'. Bowie then 'found a vast number of persons who, from various causes, were labouring under mental disease'. Dr Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums in Victoria, 1863-83, thought that the conditions of colonial life produced 'a more than ordinary amount of insanity', describing these conditions as 'the solitary life of shepherds, habits of intemperance and sudden reverses of fortune, especially among the mining population'.
Few sufferers of mental illness in 19th-century Victoria wrote about their experiences. One Chinese miner, Jong Ah Sing, was an inmate of Yarra Bend Asylum in 1869. His memoir is an account of his experiences under arrest and in the asylum. (Anne) Catherine Currie, a farmer's wife from Gippsland, kept a diary which explains in part her nervous breakdown in 1880. Her distress at the death of her youngest daughter, who drowned in a well on the farm, led to her 'distraction'. Catherine described her feelings: 'My heart is breaking and I feel frightened to grieve'. Her husband John admitted his wife to the Yarra Bend on the advice of a local doctor. After some months as an inmate in 1881 she regained strength.
By the 20th century institutions which catered for long-term treatment of the mentally ill were known as 'mental hospitals'. Sunbury (established 1879) and Royal Park (1907) had populations that reflected changing community attitudes towards mental health. Sunbury has a history of care of the intellectually handicapped. In connection with Royal Park, Mont Park (1912) housed ex-military personnel with psychiatric illnesses after 1915.
Legislation in 1928, 1933, 1958 and 1986 altered the objectives of these and other institutions. Mental health has attracted attention from campaigners for civil liberties and others critical of psychiatric institutions from the late 19th century. The Victorian Association for Mental Health (established 1930) gave public voice to such concerns. The first Victorian Mental Health Week was held by the Mental Hygiene Authority in 1958. By the 1970s and 1980s campaigns against 'psychiatric injustice' and support groups for the mentally ill and their families gained increasing strength as the institutions began emptying under new policies of deinstitutionalisation. In the 1980s the Association of Relatives and Friends of the Emotionally and Mentally Ill was formed in Camberwell, using the slogan 'You are not alone'.
In the 20th century male children and female adults have been most likely to receive mental health services. The pattern of mental disorders differs between women and men, but roughly equal numbers are affected. Women often have eating disorders, and suffer from depression at twice the rate of men, while men abuse drugs and alcohol and exhibit antisocial behaviour. Suicide is most prevalent among young men. Understandings of the causes of mental illness have been informed from the latter decades of the 20th century by such theories as the stress-vulnerability model, whereby biological, social and psychological factors influence an individual's capacity to deal with stress and their vulnerability to developing a psychiatric disorder. Mental health attracts significant attention from government bodies and has become the subject of health promotion. Perceptions of mental health from the sufferer's perspective are now accessible through creative writing and other art forms, such as the collection of psychiatric art curated by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax.