President Donald Trump continued to point to mental-health solutions to America’s gun-violence problem this week, this time saying that he would like to reopen mental asylums that have been closed over the past few decades.
“Part of the problem is we used to have mental institutions ... where you take a sicko like this guy,” he said in a discussion with state and local officials about last week’s mass shooting at a high school in Florida. “We’re going to be talking seriously about opening mental-health institutions again.”
Though “sicko” is, of course, not a psychiatric diagnosis, some experts say Trump is not wrong to suggest that America’s mental-health-care system should be strengthened, including, perhaps, by reopening mental asylums.
The devil, though, would be in the details. Funding and regulating these places extremely well would help them avoid the fate of their gruesome predecessors from past centuries. But, experts say, we can’t count on asylums or any other kind of mental-health care to stop mass shootings. It would be only to help the mentally ill people themselves.
The number of patients living in U.S. psychiatric hospitals peaked in 1955 at 560,000. But in the decades following, mental-health care went through what’s known as “deinstitutionalization,” or the shuttering of mental hospitals. Far from being therapeutic, many of these hospitals were warehouses in which, say, schizophrenics would live alongside epileptics. Patients were often abused and rarely rehabilitated. When drugs that could control the delusions and psychoses of major mental illnesses came along, they were seen as a cheaper and more humane alternative to long-term, inpatient psychiatric care.