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Mental Illness

Reform in the United States

People living in the colonies of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries generally explained bizarre or deviant behavior as God’s will or the work of the devil. Some people with mental illnesses received care from their families, but most were jailed or confined in almshouses with the poor and infirm. By the mid-18th century, however, American physicians came to view mental illnesses as diseases of the brain, and advocated specialized facilities to treat the mentally ill. The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, which opened in 1752, became the first hospital in the American colonies to admit people with mental illnesses, housing them in a separate ward. However, in the hospital’s early years, mentally ill patients were chained to the walls of dark, cold cells. (Reform in the United States, Mental Illness)

In the 1780s American physician Benjamin Rush instituted changes at the Pennsylvania Hospital that greatly improved conditions for mentally ill patients. Although he endorsed the continued use of restraints, punishment, and bleeding, he also arranged for heat and better ventilation in the wards, separation of violent patients from other patients, and programs that offered work, exercise, and recreation to patients. Between 1817 and 1828, following the examples of Tuke and Pinel, a number of institutions opened that devoted themselves exclusively to the care of mentally ill people. The first private mental hospital in the United States was the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason (now Friends Hospital), opened by Quakers in 1817 in what is now Philadelphia. Other privately established institutions soon followed, and state-sponsored hospitals—in Kentucky, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina—-opened beginning in 1824. (Reform in the United States, Mental Illness)

Nevertheless, circumstances for most mentally ill people in the United States, especially those who were poor, remained dreadful. In 1841 Dorothea Dix, a Boston schoolteacher, began a campaign to make the public aware of the plight of mentally ill people. By 1880, as a direct result of her efforts, 32 psychiatric hospitals for the poor had opened. Increasingly, society viewed psychiatric institutions as the most appropriate form of care for people with mental illnesses. However, by the late 19th century, conditions in these institutions had deteriorated. Overcrowded and understaffed, psychiatric hospitals had shifted their treatment approach from moral therapy to warehousing and punishment. In 1908 Clifford Whittingham Beers aroused new concern for mentally ill individuals with the publication of A Mind That Found Itself, an account of his experiences as a mental patient. In 1909 Beers founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which worked to prevent mental illness and ensure humane treatment of the mentally ill. (Reform in the United States, Mental Illness)

Reform in the United States | Mental Illness