History of Mental Institutions

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

In this lesson we will explore the history of America's psychiatric hospitals as well as treatments for the mentally ill. People who had great influence over psychiatric hospitals in the United States will also be discussed.

An Outdated Name

Mental institutions, as they were called in the 1700's, 1800's, and much of the 1900's, have evolved tremendously, especially over the last century. Now the preferred name for these institutions is psychiatric hospitals, because they are simply that: hospitals that treat patients with psychiatric illnesses. It's also important to remember that psychiatric illnesses are legitimate illnesses just like diabetes, heart disease, and epilepsy.

So, with that being said, let's take a look at the history of psychiatric hospitals!

Early Psychiatric Hospitals in the U.S.

Shortly after the United States came into being, there was a problem of where to house and how to treat people with mental illness. Borrowing the standards set many years earlier in Europe, psychiatric hospitals in early America were large, looming institutions that frequently experienced overcrowding and under-staffing. In addition, people could be committed to these hospitals for the slightest of reasons. For example, it wasn't uncommon for just about anybody who didn't conform to society's strict mold or who had a lower-than-average I.Q. to be involuntarily committed. Even husbands could have their wives committed for little to no reason!

In the late 18th Century, Benjamin Rush, who's now considered the founder of modern American psychiatry (and was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence), published a book in which he stated that the basis of mental illness was caused by an irritation of blood vessels in the brain. He prescribed treatments for his patients such as bleeding, purging, hot and cold baths, and even invented the gyrator chair, which is pictured below.

Gyrator Chair

So for many years, psychiatric patients underwent treatments like these, which, as you can probably imagine, helped very little, and psychiatric hospitals remained overcrowded, and in many cases, inhumane places to be.

Fast Forward to the 19th Century

In the mid-19th century, Dorothea Dix, who by profession was a school teacher, became the biggest American advocate for the mentally ill. She believed that psychiatric patients were being treated poorly (and they were), so she worked tirelessly with legislators and the government to see that newer and more modern facilities for the mentally ill were built. Although many new institutions were built before she died in 1887 and crowding in the hospitals was reduced, the patients housed in these hospitals still received poor treatment. As a result, many were never able to return to their homes and families.

The 20th Century and Beyond

Even well into the 20th century, conditions in many of these hospitals were deplorable. It was common for patients to receive electroshock therapy, which involves directly shocking the brain, ice baths, and lobotomies, which involve manually separating the lobes of the brain--while the patient is awake and fully aware of what is going on, no less!

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