Maryland’s Early Use of Work in a Natural Setting for Mental Health Treatment

Therapeutic farms use work in a natural environment to improve mental health.

Did you know that the State of Maryland was actually an innovator in this approach over a century ago?

In the 1970s I spent a summer working with older men at the Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, MD. Long before Springfield was a mental institution, it was an estate and working farm, originally developed as the dowry for the daughter of a wealthy Baltimorean, William Patterson. His daughter was intended to marry Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Jerome Bonaparte, although the marriage was later blocked by Napoleon.

In 1896, the State of Maryland transformed Springfield into a mental institution. Springfield was intended as an advance, using a more humane medical model for care instead of the prior practice of housing the "insane" in almshouses and poor farms, which were funded by state and local governments. The residents of these institutions were required to perform "hard labor," to the degree they were physically able. At least in its early days, Springfield State Hospital continued the practice of having residents work on the farm because work was viewed as important to mental health (section 8, page 9 of this document). It is unclear whether all residents were required to work or how hard they worked.

Over time, the original vision faded. Public apathy about the needs of the mentally ill led to insufficient funding, overcrowding, and abuse.

By the 1970s, I do not believe the farm employed any of the residents or produced food for the residents. Some younger, higher functioning residents continued to enjoy activities on the grounds of the hospital, while the more severely mentally or physically ill residents were locked in large, crowded dormitories and common rooms. The beautiful rolling fields, however, did appear to be actively maintained for grass or grain production, perhaps by area farmers who rented the fields.

Today Springfield has a much smaller population and the great majority have been referred from the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, visionaries in the US and in Europe are again reforming mental health treatment by returning to the model pioneered in Maryland in the late 1800s. Read more about Resolving Serious Mental Illness with Therapeutic Farms.