Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Melinda Goldner


asylums, mental institutions, mental health, total institutions, social control, mental health policy


While mental asylums have long been a point of intrigue and folklore in Western culture, they have also been the subject of bitter debate in academic and medical circles. Brought to the forefront of sociology with Erving Goffman’s benchmark work, Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961), the question of whether mental institutions in America were–and are–fundamentally curative or custodial institutions has yielded a dualistic interpretation of the past, present, and future. Whereas the psychiatrist and liberal historian might characterize America’s failed asylums as externalities of progress and, in some cases, poor policy, social scientists of the Goffman mold saw asylums as instruments of social control, built to restrain, repress, and pathologize the behavior of deviants. This paper provides both a historical review and a contemporary assessment of mental institutions in America. The former is achieved through an analysis of literature regarding institutional function and legitimacy from the Colonial era to the present day. The latter is achieved empirically through univariate, bivariate, and multivariate analysis of data on demographics and mental health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s 2018 Mental Health Client-level Dataset (MH-CLD). Ultimately, this paper suggests that all hope may not be lost for America’s asylums; however, improving existing systems of inpatient mental healthcare is no easy task.

Included in

Sociology Commons