The History of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center

Kayla Funk, Staff Writer

Mental healthcare is not a perfect science. No medication or therapy will work for all patients because everyone is different. As we as a society evolve and normalize mental health issues, more efforts are made to help and care for those who are struggling. Considering present-day mental healthcare is still a work in progress, you may wonder what it was like over a century ago. I believe that many of those answers are held in the patient stories and files of the now abandoned Kings Park Psychiatric Center.

The center opened up in 1885, almost immediately after construction was finished, in hopes to relieve the city’s hospitals of overcrowding with a new approach to help mentally ill patients. It was instantaneously flooded with patients wanting to get out of constricting NYC Psychiatric Centers. Their idea was to create an atmosphere for their patients that would give them an important role in society. Utilizing the center’s 800+ acre land, patients were given jobs and began to tend to fields, grow their own food, run power plants, and do construction. The initial reaction of this new attempt to caring for the mentally ill was well-received and patients started to show positive results. Quickly the center became its own, self-sufficient city. 

However, the success of the center was short-lived. Due to the size of the center, hiring qualified people to help run things was not easy. The center had a shortage of doctors and nurses, so they began to hire people with no background in healthcare to watch after patients. Because these people were not trained, they would take advantage of being put in a position of power and abuse patients with no risk of repercussions. For example, a child who was admitted to the center was placed in the “Disturbed Ward for Adult Men.” He describes how terrified he was to be surrounded by adults who were “screaming, walking in circles, throwing things.” The center became avid users of straightjackets, but since he was small he could easily wiggle out. Attendants punished him by hanging him in his straightjacket from a hook on a window. He describes being put in this vulnerable position as being a “piece of meat in a butcher shop, hanging from the ceiling.”

Less than 10 years after opening the center was deemed essentially unlivable. A state report from 1893 said that the buildings “were unsuitable and unhygienic, facilities inadequate, clothing insufficient and of poor quality, food often unfit for human consumption.” However, the poor report did not do anything to slow the influx of patients being admitted and the center continued to operate under the poor patient conditions. The center continued to grow and use their methods of giving their patients roles and jobs in the “city” that Kings Park Psychiatric Center started to become. In the 1930s the center hit its peak of over 9,000 patients and the center gained its own collection of livestock, additional farmland, a seamstress and tailor shop, a butcher shop, and the most used facility in the center, the morgue. 

At the end of World War II, the center was introduced to new medicines and invasive experimental treatments, such as lobotomies and shock therapy. The center used their patients as test subjects for their new technology. The lobotomies left patients braindead, and sometimes actually dead. The center began to experiment with shock therapy on their patients diagnosed with depression. The shocks were powerful and the “dosages”of shock used on a child would often be the same used on a grown man. This led to many seizures and broken bones in pediatric patients.

The mistreatment, unfit living conditions, and experimental treatment continued over the next 40 years and the patient number slowly started to dwindle. The center began to shut down in the early 1970s and relocated their few remaining patients to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. Ever since the termination of treatment at the center, it has been left to rot. The property is far too large and run down to renovate, even the cost of demolition is too much for the project to begin. So, the center remains abandoned, with windows broken and covered in graffiti. Of course it is also the subject of local storytellers who spread rumors of its hauntings. It is a relic of the old American mental healthcare system, and a symbol of how far we have come.