A rare insight into the unique history of Victoria's first hospital for the mentally ill

A rare insight into the unique history of Victoria's first hospital for the mentally ill

A rare insight into the unique history of Victoria's first hospital for the mentally ill

Updated 22 October 2017, 15:15 AEDT

The Ararat asylum was the first Victorian hospital to open for the mentally ill and the last to close and its unique history is being celebrated as it marks its 150 year anniversary.

It was once a place kept hidden from prying eyes in a regional town two hours from Melbourne.

Victoria's first hospital for the mentally ill will open its doors this weekend to celebrate its 150th anniversary and offer visitors a rare insight into its unique history.

The Aradale Mental Asylum in Ararat, in western Victoria, has a controversial past, it opened in 1865 and housed the state's mentally ill for 126 years.

John Cavanagh worked as a nurse educator at the facility for more than two decades.

"The place catered for both the intellectually handicapped person and for the mentally ill person, and it was challenging," he said.

They suffered from an inability to cope with the demands of living in a normal society.

"I was fortunate to see major developments in the care of the mentally ill — mainly pharmacological developments," she said.

"The whole care system changed from one of needing to be contained in a secure facility for their own protection, to being able to be maintained in the community."

Some believe old asylum is haunted

The abandoned asylum is made up of 64 buildings, spread over more than 40 hectares.

Its empty corridors and deserted grounds resemble the film set of a post-apocalyptic horror film.

Peter Dunn started at Aradale as an apprentice gardener 42 years ago and he still looks after the grounds today.

"I personally have had no experience with ghosts but there's people that say they have and people that don't like walking in the building," he said.

"They feel there's a presence of something there pushing them back downstairs and that sort of thing."

The patients brought to Aradale were deemed either too sick or too dangerous to remain in society.

Over the years, they were subjected to gruelling treatments, including restraint and electroshock therapy.

"Restraining jackets were still used when I started," Mr Cavanagh said.

"I have seen patients restrained mainly from self-harm wearing very rigid leather gloves."

The hospital closed in 1993, following a decision from the Victorian Government to deinstitutionalise patients in the mental hospital system.

Friends of J Ward president Ken Richie said a lot of people did not believe it should have shut its doors.

"People are still quite bitter about the closing of the place. I think it had to be," Mr Richie said.

"A lot of people felt this place was doing a great job and it had a place in Ararat society and in the society of Victoria for that matter."

Aradale was a major employer in Ararat for decades and holds a special place in the community.

"I think people are rather sad it's deteriorating the way it is," Mr Richie said.

"I don't think anyone would spend the money it would cost to refurbish it.

"So I guess is will just continue to deteriorate which is very sad indeed."