Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Christopher Payne, is not a book of words as much as it is a book of images. A photo-essay, others have called it. And the pictures definitely tell a story.

Asylum contains haunting and classical views of 19th century Kirkbride-plan mental hospitals. The old asylums were closed-off worlds complete with greenhouses, sewing rooms, craft shops, small theaters, even bowling alleys, to occupy and entertain the patient-residents. The hospitals were completely staffed and stocked for nearly every medical contingency. They had the all the facilities and devices of 20th century psychiatric care including straitjackets, ice showers, immersion tanks, ECT units, and one would imagine, lobotomies, for the ‘treatment resistant’.

Entire communities and cultures existed inside those red brick buildings, with their white painted trim around doors and windows, and everything inside painted institutional green. In the old days, thousands of patients lived out their adult lives in these State asylums, with diagnoses like: ‘undifferentiated depression’ and ‘dementia praecox’, and were even buried on the premises after they had expired.

A wistful trip down memory lane.

This book really brought back some old memories. I once lived as a teenager in a residential treatment facility on the grounds of Concord Hospital (originally called: “New Hampshire State Asylum for the Insane”) which is depicted a few times in the book (p45, 47, 143). Looking at the photos of the different institutions in this book, I saw my old room, my old bed, the basement tunnels, the bathrooms we showered in, the chairs we sat in during group, the windows I used to look out of…

On page 201 is a photo taken of a melancholic but poignant poem written by an unknown and unattributed patient on a basement wall of Augusta State Hospital in Augusta, Maine, a portion of which reads:

“I wish that some of these people, who write the books and make the rules, could spend just a few years walking in our shoes.”

Low on written content but high on visual and emotional impact, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Christopher Payne is a dreary, lovely and reverent look inside the dimly-lit underworld of State Mental Hospitals.

The Kirkbride Plan was based on ‘moral treatment’

When I was living in residential lockdown, I was not so lucky to live in a Kirkbride Plan building. Because NHH is almost two hundred years old, individual buildings on the grounds show structural differences stemming from differing ideas of how to institutionalize people over the years. At least one of the buildings there, the Bancroft Building, was Kirkbride Plan inspired. For more information on Kirkbride Plan asylums which were designed during the ‘moral treatment’ era in psychiatry, check out these sites.

Kirkbride Buildings *

Kirkbride Plan at wiki *

Bankcroft Building at New Hampshire Hospital *

New Hampshire Hospital Historical Society *


About Jane

Ms. Alexander. author, activist, artist
This entry was posted in psychiatry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

  1. Nancy widrew says:

    Over the past two decades my son has been in NH hosp a few times. He has schizo-aff disorder. He received, in my opinion, very good care. I do have a friend, however, who was hospitalized there as a teenager in the late 60’s and early 70’s. She said her experience at the time was terrible. Things have improved in Concord. The main problem now is getting the help you need before you scrape the floor and can’t get up.

    • Jane says:

      The hospital on Pleasant St. eh? I know it well. I remember growing up, my mom always used to say, “Don’t ever act crazy or you will end up on Pleasant St. doing the Thorazine shuffle.” She was right.

Comments are closed.