October 12, 1773: America’s First Insane Asylum Opens

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A Brief History

On October 12, 1773, Eastern State Hospital was established, the first insane asylum in what is now the United States. Built in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, this was a time in history when mentally ill (aka, “insane”) people were seen as something to make fun of and were used as entertainment. The famous English insane asylum, Bethlehem Royal Hospital (more commonly known as “Bedlam,” and yes, that is the source of that word) was a popular tourist attraction!

Digging Deeper

Eastern State Hospital did a thriving business as it seems there was no shortage of patients. The poor state of mental health treatment back then meant people with “issues” were locked away instead of being given proper mental health care. Of course, psychotropic medicines did not exist then, either. As the hospital became more crowded, individual care declined even more to the point where patients were mere inmates to be housed. In 1885 an electrical fire in a new wing burned the place down.

Eastern State Hospital was rebuilt and by 1935 had 2000 inmates/patients. Increasing demand for capacity outgrew available space for expansion, so the patient load was gradually moved to other facilities between 1937 and 1968, with the hospital function of the facility finally shut down in 1968, the work of mental health treatment having been totally moved to a new location outside of Williamsburg (which is in operation still today). The old building was reconstructed and opened as a museum in 1985, and today it remains a museum of mental health at the Colonial Williamsburg attraction.

The establishment of mental institutions (previously known as Lunatic Asylums or Insane Asylums) grew from the late 18th Century through the 1950’s, until in the United States nearly 600,000 people were residents in mental hospitals! This trend reversed with improved treatment and the use of drugs, and by 1977 the mental patient population had shrunk in the United States to 160,000. Unfortunately, the Reagan years saw shrinking mental health budgets from government sources and many people went untreated, becoming homeless and straining society. Today only around 35,000 mental patients are in hospitals, while a tremendous amount of our world’s largest prison population is actually mentally ill people that did not get treatment. Something like 100,000+ prison inmates (at least 16% of prison populations) are believed to be mentally ill persons.

(At the risk of being offensive, we have to wonder what percentage of American politicians are mentally ill and should be in mental hospitals!)

Should we expand our capacity for resident treatment of mentally ill people and get them out of group homes, prisons, and street corners? Is the tremendous price worth it? Please share your opinions on this subject.

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.