This article originally appeared in the Sioux City Journal.
By Jim Rixner
It was the philosopher George Santayana who said: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Unfortunately, that quote can be used to characterize the history of the mentally ill in the penal systems of our country.
In the early 19th century mentally ill individuals were put in prison because of their unusual behaviors. In 1841, Dorothea Dix, a teacher in Boston, began a 40-year crusade to establish treatment facilities in this country after she saw the horrible conditions, especially for the mentally ill, when she was teaching Sunday school in the local prison for women. The outcome of her heroic effort was the building of 32 Mental Health Institutions across the United States.
Until the early 1960s these facilities provided the foundation of the treatment for people suffering from mental illnesses. However they had become places where people were held for very long periods of time (often, most of their lives). With the advent of new medications for mental illness and the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, many of these institutions began to close. Those closures accelerated especially in the past 25 years. The peak number of 332 in the 1950s has been reduced to 195 with those remaining open having their inpatient population vastly reduced. Here in Iowa, the governor, despite the efforts of the House and Senate, last week used his veto to close two of the four Mental Health Institutions in Iowa, leaving less than 200 available beds for the entire state.
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