How Eastern State Hospital in the Williamsburg area influenced mental health policy for 250 years

A small ceramic cup, painstakingly reassembled, sits in a glass case five feet above the floor of the Public Hospital Museum in Williamsburg.

Historian Kelly Brennans loves this artifact from the excavation of the original Public Hospital for the Insane and Mentally Disordered, as it was called when it opened on October 12, 1773, as a health hospital first public psychiatric in the colonies. She pointed to the faint but still clear print on the front of the cup: Think of me.

It’s just the fact that it existed and the idea that people don’t want to be forgotten, Brennan said. Some of what you read was heartbreaking. Sometimes it is difficult to read their case notes and correspondence.

Eastern State Hospital, as it is now known, still operates near James City County and has partnered with Colonial Williamsburg to commemorate the 250th anniversary of mental health policy nationwide. The original structure burned down in 1885 in a fire that claimed more than 20 buildings, but remarkably no lives. Colonial Williamsburg rebuilt it as a museum on the original site in 1985.

Brennan pointed out the trophy Friday after a talk by King Davis, a social work professor who served as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services from 1990 to 1994, along with other influential roles in mental health. management.

“Virginia’s historic policy decision to open its first hospitals to the public forever changed its own and the nation’s conceptions of insanity and insanity, and it provided model policies and services have become the foundational approach established in every other state despite the stigma,” Davis said.

Davis called for greater recognition of Francis Fauquier, lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1758 until his death in 1768. The hospital was not approved until after his death, but for his contributions for the field, Davis said he believes Fauquier should be known as the father of state mental health hospitals in the United States.

Davis said Virginia was ahead of its time. The nation’s first hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, now part of the University of Pennsylvania hospital system, admitted its first psychiatric patient in 1753 but provided mental health care, according to the Penn Medicine website. Psychiatry is not the hospital’s sole focus.

According to records from the Smithsonian, public mental health hospitals did not begin to develop until the mid-19th century, with credit most often given to Dorothea Dix, who petitioned the Congress set aside land for them.

Davis also praised John Galt, director of Eastern State Hospital from 1841 until his death in 1862, for introducing ethical treatment that attempted to rehabilitate mentally ill patients through care. personal and comfort, medication and occupational therapy.

Despite the many advances that Davis lauds, he acknowledges that many of the challenges facing mental health today are the same as those described by Fauquier in 1766. Capacity depends, he says. Patient economics were as prominent a concern then as they are today.

“The primary responsibility for people with dementia or dementia is primarily shared by their families through their trust in God. But there are also inconsistent opinions from local parishes, from clergy, from businessmen, police chiefs and community residents,” Davis said. Strange and sometimes violent behavior causes fear and anxiety.

Today, Davis said, mental health care remains limited, and while community-based care may be ideal, most communities lack the resources to provide it. .

“2023 is also a great time to acknowledge and celebrate the history of Eastern State Hospital but also offer some forward-looking thoughts on what Governor (Glenn) Youngkin and Senator (Creigh) Deeds have near “This describes a disturbing crisis in the mental health of America’s youth that warrants extraordinary new funding allocations and a number of regulatory changes,” he said.

Katrina Dix, 757-222-5155,

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