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The 1940s - From Vision to Reality

"The 1940s - From Vision to Reality"

The Start of the Mennonite Mental Health Care Movement

In the backdrop of World War II, conscientious objectors opted for Civilian Public Service (CPS) instead of military service. Unpaid, these men undertook large government-assigned projects. Some, seeking more meaningful service, found themselves in state mental health institutions. Mennonite CPS workers, part of this group, were troubled by the dehumanizing treatment of patients. CPS workers reported this and the deplorable conditions to their leaders. It would become the impetus for the Mennonite community to develop a vision of Mennonite-sponsored, small mental health hospitals. The vision aimed to blend scientific therapies with "Christian care" and a comforting "home-like" atmosphere.   

The National Mental Health Foundation emerged from a collaboration between Mennonite CPSers and mental health leaders serving at the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. This group documented the dire conditions in state mental hospitals, revealing a shocking reality. Life Magazine's May 1946 undercover expose’, "BEDLAM 1946 - Most U.S. Mental Hospitals are a Shame and a Disgrace," painted mental hospitals as little more than "concentration camps." Wards were overcrowded, and patients were often naked and restrained with straps and locks. The Philadelphia State Hospital (at the time) had a capacity of 2,500 but a census of 6,000, with only 200 workers.

Brook Lane & the Inaugural Year

The Mennonite community, driven by a commitment to the care of individuals with mental illness rooted in their theology of healing, united for a common cause. This led to the establishment of a comprehensive vision and the formation of a dedicated committee. In pursuit of this vision, a master plan was developed, envisioning three locations across the country. The proposed eastern site, a 105-acre farm in Leitersburg, MD, was identified as ideal for realizing their "home-like" concept for a convalescent care center. In 1946, the Leitersburg Proposal received approval from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), paving the way for its implementation. Named Brook Lane Farm, the site, with existing structures along a dirt drive parallel to a winding brook, embodied the envisioned convalescent care environment. The 23-bed hospital was constructed, and in January 1949, it admitted its first patients, marking the inception of Brook Lane Farm as the pioneering mental health hospital.

During its inaugural year, the hospital admitted 107 patients, a notable contrast to the 1,737 inpatients admitted in fiscal year 2023. The farmhouse, serving as a communal space, housed dining and living areas, along with offices and staff apartments. The unique character of Brook Lane Farm emerged through its dual nature as both a psychiatric hospital and a working farm. The early staff comprised mainly volunteers and conscientious objectors who resided on the farm. This arrangement facilitated a collaborative environment, with staff and patients working together on various tasks, from household chores to tending crops and engaging in construction and maintenance activities. Brook Lane Farm thus symbolized the beginning of the Mennonite mental health care movement.

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