Pennhurst State Mental Hospital an Early Public View
By: PJ Hall-Bills
In the beginning with the creation of Pennhurst State Mental Institute public views of mental retardation were totally different than the way that the public sees them today. Because they were different some people feared them. A majority felt that they were deviants and need to be dealt with. There was not the understanding that we have today about mental retardation.
Prior to the 1890s views of mental retardation was one of protecting these individuals and helping them to learn to be more self supporting. In the late 1890s and very early 1900s society’s views changed. The public looked at children with mental retardation as deviants that needed to be removed from society and put away somewhere.
This is when the asylums as they were called sprang up. Pennhurst was one of those to be on a large scale. It was felt that people with mental retardation should be segregated and sterilized to prevent further deviants from being born. Early on the public felt that they needed to be sheltered from society which in turn isolated them from the public.
These individuals indeed were taken out of society but ultimately not for their protection. Society felt that they should be economized, thus there was a lack of funding for these institutionalized individuals. This laid the groundwork for exploitation and warehousing of the mentally handicapped.
The severely handicapped, both physical and mental, suffered more because of a lack of staff to care for them. Poor care, poor sanitation, and lack of treatment took its toile on these individuals as can be seen in the video of “Suffer the Children.” With the lack of care and treatment physical as well as mental conditions worsened.
A lot of individuals that couldn’t work or provide any care for themselves were placed in baby cribs. With the lack of staff a lot of these individuals were tied or restrained to keep them from getting out of the bed or from hurting themselves. With the dehumanization of these individuals’ society felt that the menace was being removed. Sterilization was done to prevent more births of these type of individuals.
Institutions were strongly encouraged by the state not to use state funds for caring for these individuals. These views did not change until somewhere between 1918 through 1925. The damage had already been done and mindsets remained within the institutions to continue the practices as they had been doing. There were still not enough state funds to increase the assistance to these institutions nor would there be until after the depression era. Even after the depression came World War II with its host of problems.
None of the above is excusable for the deplorable conditions for which these individuals had to live in. There continues to be problems with the facilities that we have but none as deplorable as they were then. The public is more aware of what is going on in the area of residential care homes than ever before. The focus is on the residents and the care that they receive. There is still a great deal of issue on the shortage of staff, as well as the lack of funds to care for these individuals but every year we hope that this improves.