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A New Moral Treatment by James Panero, City Journal Spring 2013

If it’s true that “men moralise among ruins,” as Benjamin Disraeli wrote, the ruins of America’s nineteenth-century mental institutions should invite some serious reflection. Built between 1850 and 1900, these crumbling edifices speak to our onetime dedication to caring for the mentally ill. Almost all were designed on the Kirkbride Plan, named for Pennsylvania physician Thomas Story Kirkbride, author of an influential treatise on the role of architecture and landscape in treating mental disorders. Even in their dilapidated state, it’s possible to see how the buildings, which followed a method of care called the “moral treatment,” gave the mentally ill a calming refuge from the gutters, jails, and almshouses that had been the default custodians of society’s “lunatics.”

Unfortunately, in the middle of the twentieth century, as asylums became grossly overcrowded and invasive treatments aroused public concern, the moral treatment came to seem immoral. The eventual result was the process known as deinstitutionalization, which steadily ejected patients from the asylums. Instead of liberating the mentally ill, however, deinstitutionalization left them—like the asylums that once sheltered them—in ruins. Many of today’s mentally ill have returned to pre-Kirkbride conditions and live on society’s margins, either sleeping on the streets or drifting among prisons, jails, welfare hotels, and outpatient facilities. As their diseases go untreated, they do significant harm to themselves and their families. Some go further, terrorizing communities with disorder and violence. Our failure to care for them recalls the inhumane era that preceded the rise of the state institutions. The time has come for new facilities and a new moral treatment.

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