Black History: Special Delivery!!
The Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane opened its doors in 1868 to provide mental health treatment for African Americans. The quality of care and conditions was often substandard. Like many institutions at that time, blacks receiving care were often segregated and subjected to substandard conditions. The 1866 Civil Rights act actually required that state-owned mental hospitals accept black patients. Despite the law, mental hospitals refused to do so. Located in Petersburg, Virginia, it was the first facility to care for black people who were thought to be experiencing mental health challenges. However, the criteria for determining if a black patient had a mental disorder was often racist and inequitable. Prior to the facility being opened, politicians and medical professionals in the state of Virginia viewed the enslaved as being at no risk for mental health challenges because they were not property owners. Thus, continuing to advance the stereotype of the inhumanity of black people. At the time, the prevailing sentiment was that only white landowners who were engaged in commerce would be at risk for mental health issues.
At the close of the civil war, landowners and legislators, seeking to maintain control of the formerly enslaved began to assert that African Americans suffered a mental illness; especially if they were seeking to flee the South. Doctors created fictitious diagnoses to label those who chose to migrate away from the south as deviant and mentally deficient. The characterization of freedom as the cause of a patient’s mental health diagnosis was intended to vilify emancipation and subjugate the formerly enslaved. Blacks could be committed to the asylum for infractions such as not following oppressive Jim Crow laws. Infractions such as not stepping off the sidewalk to allow a white person to pass, arguing with a white supervisor, or talking back to a white law enforcement officer were incidents that could result in a black person being committed to the asylum. Poverty was also a significant factor in admissions to the asylum.
In recent years, over 800,000 patient records were discovered from the Central State Assylum, as well as pictures, letters, and various other documents. Central State patient records were stored in onsite and were set to be destroyed until an astute professor, Dr.King Davis from the University of Texas recognized the value of the medical records and sought to preserve them and undertake the tedious process of digitizing the records. Davis was previously a commissioner for the Virginia Department of Mental Health. The institution remained segregated until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is still in operation today.
March 3, 2020 at 2:02 am
Never knew this. Thanks for the insights!
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March 3, 2020 at 8:04 am
Yes. It is both frightening and fascinating all at the same time period I have blogged in the past about different diagnoses given to black people in the post Civil War or even times of enslavement. Diagnoses that labeled black people as dysfunctional if they chose to escape. Drapetomania and Negritude are 2 that come to mind right now
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March 3, 2020 at 2:05 am
You know, this is incredible stuff. I wonder if these reasons echo some of those used today to institutionalize black people, mainly due to cultural incompetence and prejudicial discrimination.
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March 3, 2020 at 8:02 am
I think the reasons for institutionalizing black people at that time was frought with so much underlying racism ABC’s discrimination. Even the science around these diagnosis was not scientific or based on data at all.As a mental health professional, I do think that it is imperative that voices like yours are amplified…..combat disparities in treatment and diagnosis. I also think are challenges today center around Advocating to get call truly competent and called surely humble services for people of color. As well as being mindful of the types of diagnoses that are given. We must continue to be eternally vigilant. It also requires more robust training for clinicians to address their own bias and blind spots that can hinder providing equitable care and prevention oriented services.
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