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20th Century Psychiatric Hospitals and the Lasting Impacts of Deinstitutionalization

By Skylar Davis, VI Form

20th Century Psychiatric Hospitals and the Lasting Impacts of Deinstitutionalization

Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.

I. Introduction

Few institutions evoke greater horror than the “insane asylums” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Given the stigmatizing media portrayals of such hospitals, most people believe that they had uniformly poor living conditions, practiced barbaric treatments, and employed abusive staff. As a consequence, society now views historic asylums as torturous and inhumane places. This image, however, hides a more complex truth about the value of state mental hospitals.

Prior to the asylum era, the only hospitals in America were general hospitals. During the early 18th century, most individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses lived at home under their families’ care. At the time, communities were reasonably tolerant of individuals who exhibited mild symptoms of mental illness. Those deemed violent and disorderly were sent to either public almshouses or private hospitals, depending on their family’s finances, for professional medical care. This was the beginning of institutionalized mental health care.

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