During a recent meeting to discuss gun safety and the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Trump pined for the “old days,” saying that back then, “We had mental institutions. We had a lot of them.”
Speaking to members of his cabinet and governors from around the country, he continued, “You could nab somebody like [the Parkland shooter] because, you know, they did, they knew something was off…. But, you used to be able to bring them into a mental institution and hopefully he gets help or whatever. But he’s off the streets.”
This language was picked up by cultural commentators, some of whom agreed with him, as described in The New York Times’s piece, “Trump Wants More Asylums — and Some Psychiatrists Agree.”
Olga Khazan of The Atlantic, for instance, responded with an article entitled “Trump’s Call for Mental Institutions Could Be Good,” in which she argued that today, the country needs mental institutions because of its dearth of psychiatric beds, citing the University of Pennsylvania ethicist Dominic Sisti, who has called for a return to the “therapeutic” asylum model. At the end of her article, as an aside, Khazan writes that the only problem with Trump’s call for more mental institutions is that it came as a solution to the problem of mass shootings. Only a small percentage of individuals with psychiatric disabilities display violence, she says, and institutionalization would not stop gun violence.
What such commentators and much of the public fail to realize is that Trump’s call for more asylums is inextricably intertwined with the devaluation of disabled and psychiatrized people and the fear-based, law-and-order politics that has been on the rise for decades. Among disability activists and scholars, this oppression is known as ableism. Within the mad people’s movement, it is commonly referred to as sanism. It is this oppression of psychiatrized people that undergirds the current call for their incarceration in asylums. In this era of law-and-order politics, custodial mental institutions are viewed as legitimate and appropriate rather than as a form of state-sponsored violence.
That vision directly contradicts the historical record. At the height of institutionalization in the mid-1950s, about 560,000 Americans idled their days away in deplorable, dirty and overcrowded institutions. Many people suffered through unnecessary, unproven and often brutal medical “treatments” to modify behaviors that were deemed abnormal. Since the 1960s, ex-patients, psychiatric survivors, some users of psychiatric services, and their allies have fought to gain their rights as citizens, restore their human dignity, and move themselves out of institutions into the community. They were aided along the way by legislation like the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963, which was designed to provide psychiatric services in the community, and by court cases such as Wyatt v. Stickney, which guaranteed certain rights for people in mental institutions. This is usually referred to as “deinstitutionalization.”