What Is the History of Mental Institutions in America?


Quick Answer

Prior to the early 1800s, people with mental illnesses were kept primarily at home with their families or in separate wards at public almshouses and private hospitals, notes the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Following the rise of a treatment regimen called moral treatment, prevailing wisdom was that the mentally ill should have their own institutions in quiet, country settings.

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Full Answer

Massachusetts General Hospital built the McLean Hospital in 1811 and transferred its mentally ill patients there, states the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. The Philadelphia Quaker community opened the Friends Asylum in 1814, and New York Hospital built the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in 1816. The Kirkbride plan, which called for no more than 250 patients in an asylum with a central core and long-reaching wings that enhanced sunshine and fresh air, was developed by Thomas Kirkbride, superintendent of the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, opened in 1841.

By the 1890s, almost all states had built state-funded mental hospitals to supplement private hospitals that primarily treated richer patients, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. By the 1930s states had drastically cut budgets to mental institutions, and after World War II doctors began opening their own hospitals or outreach clinics. In the 1950s, new treatments and belief in the community health care system decreased the use of mental institutions, and most are now closed.

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