What is Institutional Syndrome?


In clinical and abnormal psychology, institutionalisation or institutional syndrome refers to deficits or disabilities in social and life skills, which develop after a person has spent a long period living in psychiatric hospitals, prisons or other remote institutions.

In other words, individuals in institutions may be deprived (whether unintentionally or not) of independence and of responsibility, to the point that once they return to “outside life” they are often unable to manage many of its demands; it has also been argued that institutionalised individuals become psychologically more prone to mental health problems.

The term institutionalisation can also be used to describe the process of committing an individual to a mental hospital or prison, or to describe institutional syndrome; thus the phrase “X is institutionalised” may mean either that X has been placed in an institution or that X is suffering the psychological effects of having been in an institution for an extended period of time.


In Europe and North America, the trend of putting the mentally ill into mental hospitals began as early as the 17th century, and hospitals often focused more on “restraining” or controlling inmates than on curing them, although hospital conditions improved somewhat with movements for human treatment, such as moral management. By the mid-20th century, overcrowding in institutions, the failure of institutional treatment to cure most mental illnesses, and the advent of drugs such as Thorazine prompted many hospitals to begin discharging patients in large numbers, in the beginning of the deinstitutionalisation movement (the process of gradually moving people from inpatient care in mental hospitals, to outpatient care).

Deinstitutionalisation did not always result in better treatment, however, and in many ways it helped reveal some of the shortcomings of institutional care, as discharged patients were often unable to take care of themselves, and many ended up homeless or in jail. In other words, many of these patients had become “institutionalised” and were unable to adjust to independent living. One of the first studies to address the issue of institutionalisation directly was British psychiatrist Russell Barton’s 1959 book Institutional Neurosis, which claimed that many symptoms of mental illness (specifically, psychosis) were not physical brain defects as once thought, but were consequences of institutions’ “stripping” (a term probably first used in this context by Erving Goffman) away the “psychological crutches” of their patients.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the problem of institutionalisation has been one of the motivating factors for the increasing popularity of deinstitutionalisation and the growth of community mental health services, since some mental healthcare providers believe that institutional care may create as many problems as it solves.

Romanian children who suffered from severe neglect at a young age were adopted by families. Research reveals that the post-institutional syndrome occurring in these children gave rise to symptoms of autistic behaviour. Studies done on eight Romanian adoptees living in the Netherlands revealed that about one third of the children exhibited behavioural and communication problems resembling that of autism.

Issues for Discharged Patients

Individuals who suffer from institutional syndrome can face several kinds of difficulties upon returning to the community. The lack of independence and responsibility for patients within institutions, along with the ‘depressing’ and ‘dehumanising’ environment, can make it difficult for patients to live and work independently. Furthermore, the experience of being in an institution may often have exacerbated individuals’ illness: proponents of labelling theory claim that individuals who are socially “labelled” as mentally ill suffer stigmatisation and alienation that lead to psychological damage and a lessening of self-esteem, and thus that being placed in a mental health institution can actually cause individuals to become more mentally ill.

What is the Community Mental Health Act of 1963?


The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 (CMHA) (also known as the Community Mental Health Centres Construction Act, Mental Retardation Facilities and Construction Act, Public Law 88-164, or the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centres Construction Act of 1963) was an act to provide federal funding for community mental health centres and research facilities in the United States.


This legislation was passed as part of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. It led to considerable deinstitutionalisation.

In 1955, Congress passed the Mental Health Study Act, leading to the establishment of the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Health. That Commission issued a report in 1961, which would become the basis of the 1963 Act.

The CMHA provided grants to states for the establishment of local mental health centres, under the overview of the National Institute of Mental Health. The NIH also conducted a study involving adequacy in mental health issues. The purpose of the CMHA was to build mental health centres to provide for community-based care, as an alternative to institutionalisation. At the centres, patients could be treated while working and living at home.

Only half of the proposed centres were ever built; none were fully funded, and the act did not provide money to operate them long-term. Some states saw an opportunity to close expensive state hospitals without spending some of the money on community-based care. Deinstitutionalisation accelerated after the adoption of Medicaid in 1965. During the Reagan administration, the remaining funding for the act was converted into a mental-health block grant for states. Since the CMHA was enacted, 90% of beds have been cut at state hospitals.

The CMHA proved to be a mixed success. Many patients, formerly warehoused in institutions, were released into the community. However, not all communities had the facilities or expertise to deal with them. In many cases, patients wound up in adult homes or with their families, or homeless in large cities, but without the mental health care they needed.

What is Involuntary Commitment?


Involuntary commitment, civil commitment, or involuntary hospitalisation (also known informally as sectioning or being sectioned in some jurisdictions, such as the UK) is a legal process through which an individual who is deemed by a qualified agent to have symptoms of severe mental disorder is detained in a psychiatric hospital (inpatient) where they can be treated involuntarily. This treatment may involve the administration of psychoactive drugs, including involuntary administration. In many jurisdictions, people diagnosed with mental health disorders can also be forced to undergo treatment while in the community; this is sometimes referred to as outpatient commitment and shares legal processes with commitment.

Refer to Voluntary Commitment.

Criteria for civil commitment are established by laws which vary between nations. Commitment proceedings often follow a period of emergency hospitalisation, during which an individual with acute psychiatric symptoms is confined for a relatively short duration (e.g. 72 hours) in a treatment facility for evaluation and stabilisation by mental health professionals who may then determine whether further civil commitment is appropriate or necessary. Civil commitment procedures may take place in a court or only involve physicians. If commitment does not involve a court there is normally an appeal process that does involve the judiciary in some capacity, though potentially through a specialist court.

Historically, until the mid-1960s in most jurisdictions in the US, all committals to public psychiatric facilities and most committals to private ones were involuntary. Since then, there have been alternating trends towards the abolition or substantial reduction of involuntary commitment, a trend known as “deinstitutionalisation”. In many currents, individuals can voluntarily admit themselves to a mental health hospital and may have more rights than those who are involuntarily committed. This practice is referred to as voluntary commitment.

In the United States, an indefinite form of commitment is applied to people convicted of some sexual offences.


For most jurisdictions, involuntary commitment is applied to individuals believed to be experiencing a mental illness that impairs their ability to reason to such an extent that the agents of the law, state, or courts determine that decisions will be made for the individual under a legal framework. In some jurisdictions, this is a proceeding distinct from being found incompetent. Involuntary commitment is used in some degree for each of the following although different jurisdictions have different criteria. Some jurisdictions limit involuntary treatment to individuals who meet statutory criteria for presenting a danger to self or others. Other jurisdictions have broader criteria. The legal process by which commitment takes place varies between jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions have a formal court hearing where testimony and other evidence may also be submitted where subject of the hearing is typically entitled to legal counsel and may challenge a commitment order through habeas corpus. Other jurisdictions have delegated these power to physicians, though may provide an appeal process that involves the judiciary but may also involve physicians. For example in the UK a mental health tribunal consists of a judge, a medical member, and a lay representative.

First Aid

Training is gradually becoming available in mental health first aid to equip community members such as teachers, school administrators, police officers, and medical workers with training in recognising, and authority in managing, situations where involuntary evaluations of behaviour are applicable under law. The extension of first aid training to cover mental health problems and crises is a quite recent development. A mental health first aid training course was developed in Australia in 2001 and has been found to improve assistance provided to persons with an alleged mental illness or mental health crisis. This form of training has now spread to a number of other countries (Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Singapore, Scotland, England, Wales, and the United States). Mental health triage may be used in an emergency room to make a determination about potential risk and apply treatment protocols.


Observation is sometimes used to determine whether a person warrants involuntary commitment. It is not always clear on a relatively brief examination whether a person should be committed.

Containment of Danger

Refer to Obligatory Dangerousness Criterion.

Austria, Belgium, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Russia, Taiwan, Ontario (Canada), and the United States have adopted commitment criteria based on the presumed danger of the defendant to self or to others.

People with suicidal thoughts may act on these impulses and harm or kill themselves.

People with psychosis are occasionally driven by their delusions or hallucinations to harm themselves or others. Research has found that those who suffer from schizophrenia are between 3.4 and 7.4 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour than members of the general public. However, because other confounding factors such as childhood adversity and poverty are correlated with both schizophrenia and violence it can be difficult to determine whether this effect is due to schizophrenia or other factors. In an attempt to avoid these confounding factors, researchers have tried comparing the rates of violence amongst people diagnosed with schizophrenia to their siblings in a similar manner to twin studies. In these studies people with schizophrenia are found to be between 1.3 and 1.8 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour.

People with certain types of personality disorders can occasionally present a danger to themselves or others.

This concern has found expression in the standards for involuntary commitment in every US state and in other countries as the danger to self or others standard, sometimes supplemented by the requirement that the danger be imminent. In some jurisdictions, the danger to self or others standard has been broadened in recent years to include need-for-treatment criteria such as “gravely disabled”.


Refer to Deinstitutionalisation.

Starting in the 1960s, there has been a worldwide trend toward moving psychiatric patients from hospital settings to less restricting settings in the community, a shift known as deinstitutionalisation. Because the shift was typically not accompanied by a commensurate development of community-based services, critics say that deinstitutionalisation has led to large numbers of people who would once have been inpatients as instead being incarcerated or becoming homeless. In some jurisdictions, laws authorising court-ordered outpatient treatment have been passed in an effort to compel individuals with chronic, untreated severe mental illness to take psychiatric medication while living outside the hospital (e.g. Laura’s Law and Kendra’s Law).

Before the 1960s deinstitutionalisation there were earlier efforts to free psychiatric patients. Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) ordered the removal of chains from patients.

In a study of 269 patients from Vermont State Hospital done by Courtenay M. Harding and associates, about two-thirds of the ex-patients did well after deinstitutionalisation.

Around the World


In 1838, France enacted a law to regulate both the admissions into asylums and asylum services across the country. Édouard Séguin developed a systematic approach for training individuals with mental deficiencies, and, in 1839, he opened the first school for the intellectually disabled. His method of treatment was based on the idea that the intellectually disabled did not suffer from disease.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, provision for the care of the mentally ill began in the early 19th century with a large state-led effort. Public mental asylums were established in Britain after the passing of the 1808 County Asylums Act. This empowered magistrates to build rate-supported asylums in every county to house the many ‘pauper lunatics’. Nine counties first applied, and the first public asylum opened in 1812 in Nottinghamshire. Parliamentary Committees were established to investigate abuses at private madhouses like Bethlem Hospital – its officers were eventually dismissed and national attention was focused on the routine use of bars, chains and handcuffs and the filthy conditions the inmates lived in. However, it was not until 1828 that the newly appointed Commissioners in Lunacy were empowered to license and supervise private asylums.

The Lunacy Act 1845 was an important landmark in the treatment of the mentally ill, as it explicitly changed the status of mentally ill people to patients who required treatment. The Act created the Lunacy Commission, headed by Lord Shaftesbury, to focus on lunacy legislation reform. The commission was made up of eleven Metropolitan Commissioners who were required to carry out the provisions of the Act; the compulsory construction of asylums in every county, with regular inspections on behalf of the Home Secretary. All asylums were required to have written regulations and to have a resident qualified physician. A national body for asylum superintendents – the Medico-Psychological Association – was established in 1866 under the Presidency of William A. F. Browne, although the body appeared in an earlier form in 1841.

At the turn of the century, England and France combined had only a few hundred individuals in asylums. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, this number had risen to the hundreds of thousands. However, the idea that mental illness could be ameliorated through institutionalisation was soon disappointed. Psychiatrists were pressured by an ever-increasing patient population. The average number of patients in asylums kept on growing. Asylums were quickly becoming almost indistinguishable from custodial institutions, and the reputation of psychiatry in the medical world had hit an extreme low.

United States

In the United States, the erection of state asylums began with the first law for the creation of one in New York, passed in 1842. The Utica State Hospital was opened approximately in 1850. The creation of this hospital, as of many others, was largely the work of Dorothea Lynde Dix, whose philanthropic efforts extended over many states, and in Europe as far as Constantinople. Many state hospitals in the United States were built in the 1850s and 1860s on the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural style meant to have curative effect.

In the United States and most other developed societies, severe restrictions have been placed on the circumstances under which a person may be committed or treated against their will as such actions have been ruled by the United States Supreme Court and other national legislative bodies as a violation of civil rights and/or human rights (e.g. O’Connor v. Donaldson). Thus a person is rarely committed against their will and it is illegal for a person to be committed for an indefinite period of time.

United Nations

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/119, “Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care“, is a non-binding resolution advocating certain broadly drawn procedures for the carrying out of involuntary commitment. These principles have been used in many countries where local laws have been revised or new ones implemented. The UN runs programmes in some countries to assist in this process.


The dangers of institutions were chronicled and criticized by reformers almost since their foundation. Charles Dickens was an outspoken and high-profile early critic, and several of his novels, in particular Oliver Twist and Hard Times demonstrate his insight into the damage that institutions can do to human beings.

Enoch Powell, when Minister for Health in the early 1960s, was a later opponent who was appalled by what he witnessed on his visits to the asylums, and his famous “water tower” speech in 1961 called for the closure of all NHS asylums and their replacement by wards in general hospitals:

“There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defenses which we have to storm.”

Scandal after scandal followed, with many high-profile public inquiries. These involved the exposure of abuses such as unscientific surgical techniques such as lobotomy and the widespread neglect and abuse of vulnerable patients in the US and Europe. The growing anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and 1970s led in Italy to the first successful legislative challenge to the authority of the mental institutions, culminating in their closure.

During the 1970s and 1990s the hospital population started to fall rapidly, mainly because of the deaths of long-term inmates. Significant efforts were made to re-house large numbers of former residents in a variety of suitable or otherwise alternative accommodation. The first 1,000+ bed hospital to close was Darenth Park Hospital in Kent, swiftly followed by many more across the UK. The haste of these closures, driven by the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, led to considerable criticism in the press, as some individuals slipped through the net into homelessness or were discharged to poor quality private sector mini-institutions.

Wrongful Involuntary Commitment

Mental health professionals have, on occasion, wrongfully deemed individuals to have symptoms of a mental disorder, and thereby commit the individual for treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Claims of wrongful commitment are a common theme in the anti-psychiatry movement.

In 1860, the case of Elizabeth Packard, who was wrongfully committed that year and filed a lawsuit and won thereafter, highlighted the issue of wrongful involuntary commitment. In 1887, investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover at an asylum in New York City to expose the terrible conditions that mental patients at the time had to deal with. She published her findings and experiences as articles in New York World, and later made the articles into one book called Ten Days in a Mad-House.

In the first half of the twentieth century there were a few high-profile cases of wrongful commitment based on racism or punishment for political dissenters. In the former Soviet Union, psychiatric hospitals were used as prisons to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society. British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote Every Good Boy Deserves Favour about the relationship between a patient and his doctor in one of these hospitals. Stoppard was inspired by a meeting with a Russian exile. In 1927, after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States, demonstrator Aurora D’Angelo was sent to a mental health facility for psychiatric evaluation after she participated in a rally in support of the anarchists. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s in Canada, 20,000 Canadian children, called the Duplessis orphans, were wrongfully certified as being mentally ill and as a result were wrongfully committed to psychiatric institutions where they were forced to take psychiatric medication that they did not need, and were abused. They were named after Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec at the time, who deliberately committed these children to in order to misappropriate additional subsidies from the federal government. Decades later in the 1990s, several of the orphans sued Quebec and the Catholic Church for the abuse and wrongdoing. In 1958, black pastor and activist Clennon Washington King Jr. tried enrolling at the University of Mississippi, which at the time was white, for summer classes; the local police secretly arrested and involuntarily committed him to a mental hospital for 12 days.

Patients are able to sue if they believe that they have been wrongfully committed. In one instance, Junius Wilson, an African American man, was committed to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1925 for an alleged crime without a trial or conviction. He was castrated. He continued to be held at Cherry Hospital for the next 67 years of his life. It turned out he was deaf rather than mentally ill.

In many American states sex offenders who have completed a period of incarceration can be civilly committed to a mental institution based on a finding of dangerousness due to a mental disorder. Although the United States Supreme Court determined that this practice does not constitute double jeopardy, organisations such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) strongly oppose the practice. The Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders, a component of APA’s Council on Psychiatry and Law, reported that “in the opinion of the task force, sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry, particularly with regard to defining mental illness and the clinical conditions for compulsory treatment. Moreover, by bending civil commitment to serve essentially non-medical purposes, statutes threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the medical model of commitment.”

What is a Psychiatric Hospital?


Psychiatric hospitals, also known as mental health units or behavioural health units, are hospitals or wards specialising in the treatment of serious mental disorders, such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Psychiatric hospitals vary widely in their size and grading. Some hospitals may specialise only in short-term or outpatient therapy for low-risk patients. Others may specialise in the temporary or permanent containment of patients who need routine assistance, treatment, or a specialised and controlled environment due to a psychological disorder. Patients often choose voluntary commitment, but those whom psychiatrists believe to pose significant danger to themselves or others may be subject to involuntary commitment and involuntary treatment.

Psychiatric hospitals may also be called psychiatric wards/units (or “psych” wards/units) when they are a subunit of a regular hospital.

The modern psychiatric hospital evolved from and eventually replaced the older lunatic asylum. The treatment of inmates in early lunatic asylums was sometimes brutal and focused on containment and restraint. With successive waves of reform, and the introduction of effective evidence-based treatments, most modern psychiatric hospitals emphasize treatment, and attempt where possible to help patients control their lives in the outside world, with the use of a combination of psychiatric drugs and psychotherapy. Exceptions include Japan, where many psychiatric hospitals still use physical restraints on patients, tying them to their beds for days or even months at a time, and India, where the use of restraint and seclusion is endemic.

Brief History

Modern psychiatric hospitals evolved from, and eventually replaced, the older lunatic asylum. Their development also entails the rise of organised institutional psychiatry.

Hospitals known as bimaristans were built in Persia (old name of Iran) beginning around the early 9th century, with the first in Baghdad under the leadership of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. While not devoted solely to patients with psychiatric disorders, they often contained wards for patients exhibiting mania or other psychological distress. Because of cultural taboos against refusing to care for one’s family members, mentally ill patients would be surrendered to a bimaristan only if the patient demonstrated violence, incurable chronic illness, or some other extremely debilitating ailment. Psychological wards were typically enclosed by iron bars owing to the aggression of some of the patients.

Western Europe would later adopt these views with the advances of physicians like Philippe Pinel at the Bicêtre Hospital in France and William Tuke at the York Retreat in England. They advocated the viewing of mental illness as a disorder that required compassionate treatment that would aid in the rehabilitation of the victim. In the Western world, the arrival of institutionalisation as a solution to the problem of madness was very much an advent of the nineteenth century. The first public mental asylums were established in Britain; the passing of the County Asylums Act 1808 empowered magistrates to build rate-supported asylums in every county to house the many ‘pauper lunatics’. Nine counties first applied, the first public asylum opening in 1812 in Nottinghamshire. In 1828, the newly appointed Commissioners in Lunacy were empowered to license and supervise private asylums. The Lunacy Act 1845 made the construction of asylums in every county compulsory with regular inspections on behalf of the Home Secretary, and required asylums to have written regulations and a resident physician.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were a few thousand “sick people” housed in a variety of disparate institutions throughout England, but by 1900 that figure had grown to about 100,000. This growth coincided with the growth of alienism, later known as psychiatry, as a medical specialism. The treatment of inmates in early lunatic asylums was sometimes very brutal and focused on containment and restraint.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, terms such as “madness”, “lunacy” or “insanity” – all of which assumed a unitary psychosis – were split into numerous “mental diseases”, of which catatonia, melancholia and dementia praecox (modern day schizophrenia) were the most common in psychiatric institutions.

In 1961 sociologist Erving Goffman described a theory of the “total institution” and the process by which it takes efforts to maintain predictable and regular behaviour on the part of both “guard” and “captor”, suggesting that many of the features of such institutions serve the ritual function of ensuring that both classes of people know their function and social role, in other words of “institutionalising” them. Asylums was a key text in the development of deinstitutionalisation.

With successive waves of reform and the introduction of effective evidence-based treatments, modern psychiatric hospitals provide a primary emphasis on treatment; and further, they attempt – where possible – to help patients control their own lives in the outside world with the use of a combination of psychiatric drugs and psychotherapy. These treatments can be involuntary. Involuntary treatments are among the many psychiatric practices which are questioned by the mental patient liberation movement. Most psychiatric hospitals now restrict internet access and any device that can take photos. In the US state of Connecticut, involuntary patients must be examined annually by a court-appointed psychiatrist. Patients may also apply for release at any time and receive a full hearing on the application.


There are a number of different types of modern psychiatric hospitals, but all of them house people with mental illnesses of widely variable severity. In the United Kingdom, both crisis admissions and medium-term care are usually provided on acute admissions wards. Juvenile or youth wards in psychiatric hospitals or psychiatric wards are set aside for children or youth with mental illness. Long-term care facilities have the goal of treatment and rehabilitation within a short time-frame (two or three years). Another institution for the mentally ill is a community-based halfway house.

Crisis Stabilisation

The crisis stabilisation unit is effectively an emergency department for psychiatry, often treating suicidal, violent, or otherwise critical individuals.

Open Units

Open psychiatric units are not as secure as crisis stabilisation units. They are not used for acutely suicidal persons; instead, the focus in these units is to make life as normal as possible for patients while continuing treatment to the point where they can be discharged. However, patients are usually still not allowed to hold their own medications in their rooms because of the risk of an impulsive overdose. While some open units are physically unlocked, other open units still use locked entrances and exits, depending on the type of patients admitted.

Medium Term

Another type of psychiatric hospital is medium term, which provides care lasting several weeks. Most drugs used for psychiatric purposes take several weeks to take effect, and the main purpose of these hospitals is to monitor the patient for the first few weeks of therapy to ensure the treatment is effective.

Juvenile Wards

Juvenile wards are sections of psychiatric hospitals or psychiatric wards set aside for children or adolescents with mental illness. However, there are a number of institutions specialising only in the treatment of juveniles, particularly when dealing with drug abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, depression or other mental illness.

Long-Term Care Facilities

In the UK, long-term care facilities are now being replaced with smaller secure units (some within the hospitals listed above). Modern buildings, modern security, and being locally situated to help with reintegration into society once medication has stabilised the condition are often features of such units. Examples of this include the Three Bridges Unit, in the grounds of St Bernard’s Hospital in West London and the John Munroe Hospital in Staffordshire. However, these modern units have the goal of treatment and rehabilitation to allow for transition back into society within a short time-frame (two or three years). However, not all patients’ treatment can meet this criterion, so the large hospitals mentioned above often retain this role.

These hospitals provide stabilisation and rehabilitation for those who are actively experiencing uncontrolled symptoms of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, and so on.

Halfway Houses

One type of institution for the mentally ill is a community-based halfway house. These facilities provide assisted living for an extended period of time for patients with mental illnesses, and they often aid in the transition to self-sufficiency. These institutions are considered to be one of the most important parts of a mental health system by many psychiatrists, although some localities lack sufficient funding.

Political Imprisonment

In some countries, the mental institution may be used for the incarceration of political prisoners as a form of punishment. A notable historical example was the use of punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union and China.

Secure Units

In the UK, criminal courts or the Home Secretary can, under various sections of the Mental Health Act, order the admission of offenders for detainment in a psychiatric hospital, but the term “criminally insane” is no longer legally or medically recognised. Secure psychiatric units exist in all regions of the UK for this purpose; in addition, there are a few specialist hospitals which offer treatment with high levels of security. These facilities are divided into three main categories: High, Medium and Low Secure. Although the phrase “Maximum Secure” is often used in the media, there is no such classification. “Local Secure” is a common misnomer for Low Secure units, as patients are often detained there by local criminal courts for psychiatric assessment before sentencing.

Run by the National Health Service, these facilities which provide psychiatric assessments can also provide treatment and accommodation in a safe hospital environment which prevents absconding. Thus there is far less risk of patients harming themselves or others. The Central Mental Hospital in Dublin performs a similar function

Community Hospital Utilisation

Community hospitals across the United States regularly see mental health discharges. A study of community hospital discharge data from 2003-2011 showed that mental health hospitalisations were increasing for both children (patients aged 0-17 years) and adults (patients aged 18-64). Compared to other hospital utilisation, mental health discharges for children were the lowest while the most rapidly increasing hospitalisations were for adults under 64. Some units have been opened to provide “Therapeutically Enhanced Treatment” and so form a subcategory to the three main unit types.

The general public in the UK are familiar with the names of the High Secure Hospitals due to the frequency that they are mentioned in the news reports about the people who are sent there. Those in the UK include Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside, Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire, Rampton Secure Hospital in Retford, Nottinghamshire, and Scotland’s The State Hospital in Carstairs. Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man have their own Medium and Low Secure units but use the mainland facilities for High Secure, to which smaller Channel Islands also transfer their patients as Out of Area (Off-Island Placements) Referrals under the Mental Health Act 1983. Of the three unit types, Medium Secure is most prevalent throughout the UK. As of 2009, there were 27 women-only units in England alone. Irish units include those at prisons in Portlaise, Castelrea and Cork.


Hungarian-born psychiatrist Thomas Szasz argued that psychiatric hospitals are like prisons unlike other kinds of hospitals, and that psychiatrists who coerce people (into treatment or involuntary commitment) function as judges and jailers, not physicians. Historian Michel Foucault is widely known for his comprehensive critique of the use and abuse of the mental hospital system in Madness and Civilisation. He argued that Tuke and Pinel’s asylum was a symbolic recreation of the condition of a child under a bourgeois family. It was a microcosm symbolizing the massive structures of bourgeois society and its values: relations of Family-Children (paternal authority), Fault–Punishment (immediate justice), Madness-Disorder (social and moral order).

Erving Goffman coined the term “Total Institution” for mental hospitals and similar places which took over and confined a person’s whole life. Goffman placed psychiatric hospitals in the same category as concentration camps, prisons, military organisations, orphanages, and monasteries. In his book Asylums Goffman describes how the institutionalisation process socialises people into the role of a good patient, someone “dull, harmless and inconspicuous”; in turn, it reinforces notions of chronicity in severe mental illness. The Rosenhan experiment of 1973 demonstrated the difficulty of distinguishing sane patients from insane patients.

Franco Basaglia, a leading psychiatrist who inspired and planned the psychiatric reform in Italy, also defined the mental hospital as an oppressive, locked and total institution in which prison-like, punitive rules are applied, in order to gradually eliminate its own contents. Patients, doctors and nurses are all subjected (at different levels) to the same process of institutionalism. American psychiatrist Loren Mosher noticed that the psychiatric institution itself gave him master classes in the art of the “total institution”: labelling, unnecessary dependency, the induction and perpetuation of powerlessness, the degradation ceremony, authoritarianism, and the primacy of institutional needs over those of the persons whom it was ostensibly there to serve: the patients.

The anti-psychiatry movement coming to the fore in the 1960s has opposed many of the practices, conditions, or existence of mental hospitals; due to the extreme conditions in them. The psychiatric consumer/survivor movement has often objected to or campaigned against conditions in mental hospitals or their use, voluntarily or involuntarily. The mental patient liberation movement emphatically opposes involuntary treatment but it generally does not object to any psychiatric treatments that are consensual, provided that both parties can withdraw consent at any time.

What is Deinstitutionalisation?


Deinstitutionalisation is the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with less isolated community mental health services for those diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability. In the late 20th century, it led to the closure of many psychiatric hospitals, as patients were increasingly cared for at home, in halfway houses and clinics, in regular hospitals, or not at all.

Deinstitutionalisation works in two ways:

  • The first focuses on reducing the population size of mental institutions by releasing patients, shortening stays, and reducing both admissions and readmission rates.
  • The second focuses on reforming psychiatric care to reduce (or avoid encouraging) feelings of dependency, hopelessness and other behaviours that make it hard for patients to adjust to a life outside of care.

The modern deinstitutionalisation movement was made possible by the discovery of psychiatric drugs in the mid-20th century, which could manage psychotic episodes and reduced the need for patients to be confined and restrained. Another major impetus was a series of socio-political movements that campaigned for patient freedom. Lastly, there were financial imperatives, with many governments also viewing it as a way to save costs.

The movement to reduce institutionalisation was met with wide acceptance in Western countries, though its effects have been the subject of many debates. Critics of the policy include defenders of the previous policies as well as those who believe the reforms did not go far enough to provide freedom to patients.

Brief History

19th Century

The 19th century saw a large expansion in the number and size of asylums in Western industrialised countries. In contrast to the prison-like asylums of old, these were designed to be comfortable places where patients could live and be treated, in keeping with the movement towards “moral treatment”. In spite of these ideals, they became overstretched, non-therapeutic, isolated in location, and neglectful of patients.

20th Century

By the beginning of the 20th century, increasing admissions had resulted in serious overcrowding, causing many problems for psychiatric institutions. Funding was often cut, especially during periods of economic decline and wartime. Asylums became notorious for poor living conditions, lack of hygiene, overcrowding, ill-treatment, and abuse of patients; many patients starved to death. The first community-based alternatives were suggested and tentatively implemented in the 1920s and 1930s, although asylum numbers continued to increase up to the 1950s.

Origins of the Modern Movement

The advent of chlorpromazine and other antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s and 1960s played an important role in permitting deinstitutionalisation, but it was not until social movements campaigned for reform in the 1960s that the movement gained momentum.

A key text in the development of deinstitutionalisation was Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, a 1961 book by sociologist Erving Goffman. The book is one of the first sociological examinations of the social situation of mental patients, the hospital. Based on his participant observation field work, the book details Goffman’s theory of the “total institution” (principally in the example he gives, as the title of the book indicates, mental institutions) and the process by which it takes efforts to maintain predictable and regular behaviour on the part of both “guard” and “captor,” suggesting that many of the features of such institutions serve the ritual function of ensuring that both classes of people know their function and social role, in other words of “institutionalising” them.

Franco Basaglia, a leading Italian psychiatrist who inspired and was the architect of the psychiatric reform in Italy, also defined mental hospital as an oppressive, locked and total institution in which prison-like, punitive rules are applied, in order to gradually eliminate its own contents, and patients, doctors and nurses are all subjected (at different levels) to the same process of institutionalism. Other critics went further and campaigned against all involuntary psychiatric treatment. In 1970, Goffman worked with Thomas Szasz and George Alexander to found the American Association for the Abolition of Involuntary Mental Hospitalisation (AAAIMH), who proposed abolishing all involuntary psychiatric intervention, particularly involuntary commitment, against individuals. The association provided legal help to psychiatric patients and published a journal, The Abolitionist, until it was dissolved in 1980.


The prevailing public arguments, time of onset, and pace of reforms varied by country. Leon Eisenberg lists three key factors that led to deinstitutionalisation gaining support. The first factor was a series of socio-political campaigns for the better treatment of patients. Some of these were spurred on by institutional abuse scandals in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Willowbrook State School in the United States and Ely Hospital in the United Kingdom. The second factor was new psychiatric medications made it more feasible to release people into the community and the third factor was financial imperatives. There was an argument that community services would be cheaper. Mental health professionals, public officials, families, advocacy groups, public citizens, and unions held differing views on deinstitutionalisation.

However, the 20th Century marked the development of the first community services designed specifically to divert deinstitutionalisation and to develop the first conversions from institutional, governmental systems to community majority systems (governmental-NGO-For Profit). These services are so common throughout the world (e.g. individual and family support services, groups homes, community and supportive living, foster care and personal care homes, community residences, community mental health offices, supported housing) that they are often “delinked” from the term deinstitutionalization. Common historical figures in deinstitutionalisation in the US include Geraldo Rivera, Robert Williams, Burton Blatt, Gunnar Dybwad, Michael Kennedy, Frank Laski, Steven J. Taylor, Douglas P. Biklen, David Braddock, Robert Bogdan and K.C. Lakin. in the fields of “intellectual disabilities” (e.g. amicus curae, Arc-US to the US Supreme Court; US state consent decrees).

Community organizing and development regarding the fields of mental health, traumatic brain injury, aging (nursing facilities) and children’s institutions/private residential schools represent other forms of diversion and “community re-entry”. Paul Carling’s book, Return to the Community: Building Support Systems for People with Psychiatric Disabilities describes mental health planning and services in that regard, including for addressing the health and personal effects of “long term institutionalisation”. and the psychiatric field continued to research whether “hospitals” (e.g. forced involuntary care in a state institution; voluntary, private admissions) or community living was better. US states have made substantial investments in the community, and similar to Canada, shifted some but not all institutional funds to the community sectors as deinstitutionalisation. For example, NYS Education, Health and Social Services Laws identify mental health personnel in the state of New York, and the two term Obama Presidency in the US created a high-level Office of Social and Behavioural Services.

The 20th Century marked the growth in a class of deinstitutionalisation and community researchers in the US and world, including a class of university women. These women follow university education on social control and the myths of deinstitutionalization, including common forms of transinstitutionalisation such as transfers to prison systems in the 21st Century, “budget realignments”, and the new subterfuge of community data reporting.


Community services that developed include supportive housing with full or partial supervision and specialised teams (such as assertive community treatment and early intervention teams). Costs have been reported as generally equivalent to inpatient hospitalisation, even lower in some cases (depending on how well or poorly funded the community alternatives are). Although deinstitutionalisation has been positive for the majority of patients, it also has shortcomings.

Criticism of deinstitutionalisation takes two forms. Some, like E. Fuller Torrey, defend the use of psychiatric institutions and conclude that deinstitutionalisation was a move in the wrong direction. Others, such as Walid Fakhoury and Stefan Priebe, argue that it was an unsuccessful move in the right direction, suggesting that modern day society faces the problem of “reinstitutionalisation”. While coming from opposite viewpoints, both sets of critics argue that the policy left many patients homeless or in prison. Leon Eisenberg has argued that deinstitutionalisation was generally positive for patients, while noting that some were left homeless or without care.


There is a common perception by the public and media that people with mental disorders are more likely to be dangerous and violent if released into the community. However, a large 1998 study in Archives of General Psychiatry suggested that discharged psychiatric patients without substance abuse symptoms are no more likely to commit violence than others without substance abuse symptoms in their neighbourhoods, which were usually economically deprived and high in substance abuse and crime. The study also reported that a higher proportion of the patients than of the others in the neighbourhoods reported symptoms of substance abuse.

Findings on violence committed by those with mental disorders in the community have been inconsistent and related to numerous factors; a higher rate of more serious offences such as homicide have sometimes been found but, despite high-profile homicide cases, the evidence suggests this has not been increased by deinstitutionalisation. The aggression and violence that does occur, in either direction, is usually within family settings rather than between strangers.

Adequacy of Treatment and Support

Common criticisms of the new community services are that they have been uncoordinated, underfunded and unable to meet complex needs. Problems with coordination arose because care was being provided by multiple for-profit businesses, non-profit organisations and multiple levels of government.

Torrey has opposed deinstitutionalisation in principle, arguing that people with mental illness will be resistant to medical help due to the nature of their conditions. These views have made him a controversial figure in psychiatry. He believes that reducing psychiatrists’ powers to use involuntary commitment led to many patients losing out on treatment, and that many who would have previously lived in institutions are now homeless or in prison.

Other critics argue that deinstitutionalisation had laudable goals, but some patients lost out on care due to problems in the execution stage. In a 1998 study of the effects of deinstitutionalisation in the United Kingdom, Means and Smith argue that the program had some successes, such as increasing the participation of volunteers in mental healthcare, but that it was underfunded and let down by a lack of coordination between the health service and social services.


Some mental health academics and campaigners have argued that deinstitutionalisation was well-intentioned for trying to make patients less dependent on psychiatric care, but in practice patients were still left being dependent on the support of a mental healthcare system, a phenomenon known as “reinstitutionalisation” or “transinstitutionalisation”.

The argument is that community services can leave the mentally ill in a state of social isolation (even if it is not physical isolation), frequently meeting other service users but having little contact with the rest of the public community. Fakhoury and Priebe said that instead of “community psychiatry”, reforms established a “psychiatric community”. Julie Racino argues that having a closed social circle like this can limit opportunities for mentally ill people to integrate with the wider society, such as personal assistance services.

Thomas Szasz, a longtime opponent of involuntary psychiatric treatment, argued that the reforms never addressed the aspects of psychiatry that he objected to, particularly his belief that mental illnesses are not true illnesses but medicalised social and personal problems.


There was an increase in prescriptions of psychiatric medication in the years following deinstitutionalisation. Although most of these drugs had been discovered in the years before, deinstitutionalisation made it far cheaper to care for a mental health patient and increased the profitability of the drugs. Some researchers argue that this created economic incentives to increase the frequency of psychiatric diagnosis (and related diagnoses, such as ADHD in children) that did not happen in the era of costly hospitalised psychiatry.

In most countries (except some countries that are either in extreme poverty or are hindered from importing psychiatric drugs by their customs regulations), more than 10% of the population are now on some form of psychiatric medicine. This increases to more than 15% in some countries such as the United Kingdom. A 2012 study by Kales, Pierce and Greenblatt argued that these medicines were being overprescribed.


Moves to community living and services have led to various concerns and fears, from both the individuals themselves and other members of the community. Over a quarter of individuals accessing community mental health services in a US inner-city area are victims of at least one violent crime per year, a proportion eleven times higher than the inner-city average. The elevated victim rate holds for every category of crime, including rape/sexual assault, other violent assaults, and personal and property theft. Victimisation rates are similar to those with developmental disabilities.


Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, a number of residential care services such as halfway houses, long-stay care homes, supported hostels are provided for the discharged patients. In addition, community support services such as rehabilitation day services and mental health care have been launched to facilitate the patients’ re-integration into the community.


Unlike most developed countries, Japan has not followed a program of deinstitutionalisation. The number of hospital beds has risen steadily over the last few decades. Physical restraints are used far more often. In 2014, more than 10,000 people were restrained – the highest ever recorded (at the time), and more than double the number a decade earlier. In 2018, the Japanese Ministry of Health introduced revised guidelines that placed more restrictions against the use of restraints.


Uganda has one psychiatric hospital. There are only 40 psychiatrists in Uganda. The World Health Organisation estimates that 90% of mentally ill people here never get treatment.

New Zealand

New Zealand established a reconciliation initiative in 2005 to address the ongoing compensation payouts to ex-patients of state-run mental institutions in the 1970s to 1990s. A number of grievances were heard, including: poor reasons for admissions; unsanitary and overcrowded conditions; lack of communication to patients and family members; physical violence and sexual misconduct and abuse; inadequate mechanisms for dealing with complaints; pressures and difficulties for staff, within an authoritarian hierarchy based on containment; fear and humiliation in the misuse of seclusion; over-use and abuse of ECT, psychiatric medications, and other treatments as punishments, including group therapy, with continued adverse effects; lack of support on discharge; interrupted lives and lost potential; and continued stigma, prejudice, and emotional distress and trauma.

There were some references to instances of helpful aspects or kindnesses despite the system. Participants were offered counselling to help them deal with their experiences, along with advice on their rights, including access to records and legal redress.


Italy was the first country to begin the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care and to develop a community-based psychiatric system. The Italian system served as a model of effective service and paved the way for deinstitutionalisation of mental patients. Since the late 1960s, the Italian physician Giorgio Antonucci questioned the basis itself of psychiatry. After working with Edelweiss Cotti in 1968 at the Centro di Relazioni Umane in Cividale del Friuli – an open ward created as an alternative to the psychiatric hospital – from 1973 to 1996 Antonucci worked on the dismantling of the psychiatric hospitals Osservanza and Luigi Lolli of Imola and the liberation – and restitution to life – of the people there secluded. In 1978, the Basaglia Law had started Italian psychiatric reform that resulted in the end of the Italian state mental hospital system in 1998.

The reform was focused on the gradual dismantlement of psychiatric hospitals, which required an effective community mental health service. The object of community care was to reverse the long-accepted practice of isolating the mentally ill in large institutions and to promote their integration in a socially stimulating environment, while avoiding subjecting them to excessive social pressures.

The work of Giorgio Antonucci, instead of changing the form of commitment from the mental hospital to other forms of coercion, questions the basis of psychiatry, affirming that mental hospitals are the essence of psychiatry and rejecting any possible reform of psychiatry, that must be completely eliminated.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the trend towards deinstitutionalisation began in the 1950s. At the time, 0.4% of the population of England were housed in asylums. The government of Harold Macmillan sponsored the Mental Health Act 1959, which removed the distinction between psychiatric hospitals and other types of hospitals. Enoch Powell, the Minister of Health in the early 1960s, criticised psychiatric institutions in his 1961 “Water Tower” speech and called for most of the care to be transferred to general hospitals and the community. The campaigns of Barbara Robb and several scandals involving mistreatment at asylums (notably Ely Hospital) furthered the campaign. The Ely Hospital scandal led to an inquiry led by Brian Abel-Smith and a 1971 white paper that recommended further reform.

The policy of deinstitutionalisation came to be known as Care in the Community at the time it was taken up by the government of Margaret Thatcher. Large-scale closures of the old asylums began in the 1980s. By 2015, none remained.

United States

The United States has experienced two main waves of deinstitutionalisation. The first wave began in the 1950s and targeted people with mental illness. The second wave began roughly 15 years later and focused on individuals who had been diagnosed with a developmental disability. Loren Mosher argues that deinstitutionalisation fully began in the 1970s and was due to financial incentives like SSI and Social Security Disability, rather than after the earlier introduction of psychiatric drugs.

The most important factors that led to deinstitutionalisation were changing public attitudes to mental health and mental hospitals, the introduction of psychiatric drugs and individual states’ desires to reduce costs from mental hospitals. The federal government offered financial incentives to the states to achieve this goal. Stroman pinpoints World War II as the point when attitudes began to change. In 1946, Life magazine published one of the first exposés of the shortcomings of mental illness treatment. Also in 1946, Congress passed the National Mental Health Act of 1946, which created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH was pivotal in funding research for the developing mental health field.

President John F. Kennedy had a special interest in the issue of mental health because his sister, Rosemary, had incurred brain damage after being lobotomised at the age of 23. His administration sponsored the successful passage of the Community Mental Health Act, one of the most important laws that led to deinstitutionalisation. The movement continued to gain momentum during the Civil Rights Movement. The 1965 amendments to Social Security shifted about 50% of the mental health care costs from states to the federal government, motivating state governments to promote deinstitutionalization. The 1970s saw the founding of several advocacy groups, including Liberation of Mental Patients, Project Release, Insane Liberation Front, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The lawsuits these activist groups filed led to some key court rulings in the 1970s that increased the rights of patients. In 1973, a federal district court ruled in Souder v. Brennan that whenever patients in mental health institutions performed activity that conferred an economic benefit to an institution, they had to be considered employees and paid the minimum wage required by the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938. Following this ruling, institutional peonage was outlawed. In the 1975 ruling O’Connor v. Donaldson, the US Supreme Court restricted the rights of states to incarcerate someone who was not violent. This was followed up with the 1978 ruling Addington v. Texas, further restricting states from confining anyone involuntarily for mental illness. In 1975, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favour of the Mental Patient’s Liberation Front in Rogers v. Okin, establishing the right of a patient to refuse treatment. Later reforms included the Mental Health Parity Act, which required health insurers to give mental health patients equal coverage.

Other factors included scandals. A 1972 television broadcast exposed the abuse and neglect of 5,000 patients at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. The Rosenhan’s experiment in 1973 caused several psychiatric hospitals to fail to notice fake patients who showed no symptoms once they were institutionalised. The pitfalls of institutionalisation were dramatised in an award-winning 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In 1955, for every 100,000 US citizens there were 340 psychiatric hospital beds. In 2005 that number had diminished to 17 per 100,000.

South America

In several South American countries, such as in Argentina, the total number of beds in asylum-type institutions has decreased, replaced by psychiatric inpatient units in general hospitals and other local settings.

In Brazil, there are 6003 psychiatrists, 18,763 psychologists, 1985 social workers, 3119 nurses and 3589 occupational therapists working for the Unified Health System (SUS). At primary care level, there are 104,789 doctors, 184,437 nurses and nurse technicians and 210,887 health agents. The number of psychiatrists is roughly 5 per 100,000 inhabitants in the Southeast region, and the Northeast region has less than 1 psychiatrist per 100,000 inhabitants. The number of psychiatric nurses is insufficient in all geographical areas, and psychologists outnumber other mental health professionals in all regions of the country. The rate of beds in psychiatric hospitals in the country is 27.17 beds per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate of patients in psychiatric hospitals is 119 per 100,000 inhabitants. The average length of stay in mental hospitals is 65.29 days.