Mental Hospitals of the Past Helped Create Much Needed Health Care Reform

Elizabeth Gagen

When we think of mental hospitals, images of Gothic Victorian asylums, or the flourescent-lit linoleum of modern psychiatric wards often spring to mind. Many of our ideas about what it was like to live and work in these institutions come from films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which portray mental hospitals as cruel and authoritarian.

These institutions dominated the care landscape of Britain until the Community Care Act 1990 permanently closed psychiatric hospitals and relocated patients into community settings. All but a few mental hospitals have now been demolished or turned into housing.

But although these institutions were a vital part of communities across the UK, we have limited knowledge of what it was like to live and work there. An exhibition on the history of Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea from 1932-2018 provided some much needed insight into what life was like. It found that despite cruelties, errors and suffering, the hospital was also a rich community environment that was full of life, energy and optimism.

During the 19th century, a series of parliamentary acts demanded that all counties in the United Kingdom provide a mental asylum. Prior to that, “pauper” lunatics were locked away in workhouses or prisons. Between 1808 and 1890, a network of county asylums emerged that provided increasingly specialised care. Swansea was therefore well behind other counties when work finally began on Cefn Coed Mental Hospital in 1914, only to stop again with the onset of the first world war.

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