Austin State Hospital Sign

Texas’s oldest hospital for mental health treatment

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The State of Texas authorized the formation of a State Lunatic Asylum in 1856. Lawmakers decided to build the hospital in Austin and the new facility opened in 1861. In 1925, the Texas State Lunatic Asylum was re-named Austin State Hospital. By then, Austin State Hospital was one of 6 state funded mental health hospitals in Texas.

Texas lawmakers established the original mental health asylum as part of a national movement to reform how persons with mental illnesses were cared for. Prior to the 1850s, they were cared for either in alms houses for the poor or within the prison system. But doctors came to believe that mental illness could be cured by removing patients from the environments causing or contributing to their mental distress. Instead, patients should be isolated in resort-like institutions where they could stay until they were well enough to return to society. This was the model of care adopted in Texas. Over time, these asylums became permanent homes for many patients. As fewer patients were cured and sent home, and more patients were admitted, the hospitals grew crowded and the asylum model of care fell out of favor.

Construction of the State Lunatic Asylum in Austin began in 1857. The design was based on the Kirkbride Plan, or the theory that architecture could be therapeutic if patients had spacious, airy rooms in a park-like setting. It emphasized a ward system where patients were housed according to diagnosis and wings could be easily added as needed. The main hospital was built in segments between 1857 and 1904 with support buildings added as the hospital’s population grew.

The hospital campus was a self-contained community with ample farm land for its own garden and crops, hog, dairy, and chicken farms. All of the clothing and bedding for patients and staff were made on site in the hospital’s sewing room and tailor shop. The hospital also had its own power plant, water system, laundry, carpenter shop, creamery, mattress factory, ice factory, infirmary, and cemetery.

The oldest mental health care facility in Texas, Austin State Hospital cared for just 12 patients when it first opened in 1861. Since then it has grown to serve thousands of patients a year. In 2019, a renovation and building project was undertaken to build a new hospital on the Austin campus while preserving the original building. The project is part of a $1 billion investment from Texas lawmakers for the construction and renovation of state psychiatric hospitals around the state.

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Austin State Hospital Sign Artifact from Austin, TX
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