Southwest Virginia flourished after Reconstruction. The growing mining industry caused cities to develop faster across the state’s mountainous region than ever before. The population growth also meant the numbers of the ailing compounded several times over. State representatives realized there was a dire need for a mental facility west of the New River Line.
Plans for the new asylum began in 1884. A Smyth County site was chosen in August of 1884, near the town of Marion, Virginia. The location offered over 200 acres of land and plentiful resources. The original structure, as pictured in the above image, was a “kirkbride.” Kirkbride institutions were structured as to provide the patient with as much calm and tranquility as possible. The Kirkbride asylum plan was designed by Thomas Story Kirkbride.
Harvey Black was the first superintendent of the Southwestern State Lunatic Asylum when it opened, in May of 1887. The patient population was consistent for a time, but soon grew. Patient numbers grew so quickly the facility couldn’t properly manage them. Outbuildings were constructed around the facility as needed. The hospital soon offered separate facilities for tuberculosis patients, as well as the criminally insane. Due to its ideal location, the hospital was entirely self-sufficient. Hospital administration occasionally asked locals for donations of items like reading material, art, or photographs. The first public call for donated materials came later in 1887.
The facility continued to prosper through the 1930s. As change came to the mental health field, it also came to the hospital. In accordance with these new considerations, hospital administration decided a more discreet and tactful name was necessary. In 1935, the hospital became the “Southwestern State Hospital.” The derogatory term “lunatic” would never again be used, as it had been with the original “Southwestern State Lunatic Asylum.”
Deinstitutionalization gained momentum during the 1960s. Former asylum patients found themselves without the stable or structured environments they needed. Many, who were unable to function or cope in the typical world, became homeless. Others flooded prisons and jails because there was no access to consistent treatment or medication. Unfortunately, society inadvertently decided it was cheaper to incarcerate people as opposed to treating them. Deinstitutionalization was a product, not only of atrocious abuses against mental patients and issues with dishonest administrations, but also because it had became too expensive to continue.
Patient numbers had plummeted by the end of the 1970s. In 1981, the number of residents was so low that the Department of Corrections stepped in to manage the majority of the facility.
The historic structure was nearly condemned by its centennial anniversary. Scandal erupted over the living conditions inside the once-majestic hospital. Investigators found elderly patients huddled under electric blankets for warmth, oftentimes patients shared them. Some walls were propped up with bare two-by-four frames. The hospital’s heating came from a “single loop system” that hadn’t been updated since 1923. Regardless of how much heat the furnace produced, it did no good. The system couldn’t regulate or distribute the warmth. Summers in the facility were just as unbearable because there was no air conditioning.
The hospital had around 400 patients and 685 staff, by that point. The controversy surrounding the heinous conditions prompted the demolition of five of the eight buildings, including the original structure. Reconstruction began and a new facility was opened in 1988. The name was changed again, this time to the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute.
The hospital’s cemetery is over 120 years old. A staggering 1,200 unknown souls are buried in unmarked graves. In some cases, the families didn’t want the bodies, or couldn’t afford a burial. It was partially moved in the 1960s to accommodate Interstate-81, but the process was heavily monitored. Today, the cemetery remains a beautiful spot to reflect and remember. A monument stands to these unknown patients, it reads, “The Forget Me Nots of Heaven Known Only to God.”