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I was trying to translate manicomio in English, and I remembered that a friend of mine told me the English word was asylum.

Looking at the OALD, I noticed it is said to be an old use of the word.

(old use) a hospital where people who were mentally ill could be cared for, often for a long time

Google Translate gives me the following words:

  • Asylum
  • Mental Hospital (This seems closer to ospedale psichiatrico.)
  • Madhouse
  • Bedlam

I assume that Google Translate orders the words in a specific order, but the fact the first one is asylum confuses me.

What is the current word I should used to mean the place where people with mental ill are cared for?

Notice that in Italian manicomio is also used for a situation where there is a lot of noise, activity, and confusion (i.e. pandemonium, which has also an equivalent in the Italian pandemonio); I guess that is the reason why Google translate suggests bedlam.

  • "Bedlam" can mean an asylum, although that usage is largely archaic. The word started as as a corruption of "Bethlem", the name of an asylum in London which has operated continuously since around the start of the fifteenth century. The word then came to mean any asylum and from there any scene of chaos or pandemonium. – Nigel Harper Jul 11 '13 at 20:29
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    There's not really a "current" word for asylum in the UK because we hardly have such places any more. Severely disturbed people are treated in psychiatric hospitals, then discharged to either live independently, or in small "care in the community" homes with help from trained staff. The old Victorian-style "out of mind, out of sight" institutions have all but disappeared. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 11 '13 at 21:29
  • @FumbleFingers That is what happens in Italy too; none the less, we didn't change the word for the place, although there is a "politically correct" word for that too. :) – kiamlaluno Jul 11 '13 at 21:40
  • When I was younger there were three fairly large "mental hospitals" within a few miles of where I lived, but they've all been closed long ago. All the current places I know of are actually just relatively small "psychiatric units" within larger general hospitals. The costs per patient are very high, because they have high staff/patient ratios, so people aren't normally kept in for more than a few weeks/months. I've no direct knowledge of how the system works for the criminally insane these days though. Some of them are still kept locked up for years or even decades. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 11 '13 at 21:50
  • @FumbleFingers As far as I'm aware (from watching television, anyway, but what can you do? ;) if you are exonerated by reason of insanity you are sent to a mental hospital and cared for, but I don't think you're allowed to leave until/if you're cured (and you're probably kept separate from the other patients, I should hope.) A quick glance over this wiki article seems to confirm the general idea there. – WendiKidd Jul 11 '13 at 22:05
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Mental hospital (which, as you say, corresponds to ospedale psichiatrico) is a reasonable choice for the lunatic asylum sense of manicomio. Psychiatric hospital or psychiatric ward also are reasonable. In some instances, rehab and retreat may apply. Loony bin might also apply but has an entirely different tone.

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It's not so much that the word asylum is no longer used as that most places don't have them anymore. As was discussed in comments, the insane used to be placed in asylums which were more like prisons; they were thought dangerous and incurable, and essentially left to rot. Rather than just asylum by itself, I've more often heard this as insane asylum (though I suppose technically this is redundant, it's how I've heard it used, and helps differentiate it from political asylum).

The modern institutions that care for mental patients properly would indeed be called a mental hospital, though that is perhaps more informal than the more politically correct psychiatric hospital.

So while asylums themselves don't tend to exist anymore, I certainly wouldn't agree that the word is 'old'; in fact it was recently used to title a Doctor Who episode, which I find rather current. :)

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    Fun fact: The translation of political asylum in Italian is asilo politico, where asilo is also the word for kindergarden. :) – kiamlaluno Jul 12 '13 at 14:00
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Short answer: "mental hospitals" or "mental institutions"

The word "asylum" in general means a place of refuge or protection. So we can talk about people fleeing from political persecution "seeking asylum". People occasionally talk about some very peaceful and tranquil place being "an asylum from their hectic lives", etc. So originally the idea of an "insane asylum" was that it was a place where the insane could be protected and taken care of.

Or course once you make such a place a large institution, it becomes bureaucratic and impersonal, and so insane asylums acquired the reputation of being unpleasant places where mentally ill people were treated like animals or objects, warehoused, treated rudely, perhaps even abused. (I don't claim any personal knowledge, but I'd guess that, like most things in real life, there were likely places that were very good and caring and places that were abusive and evil, and the bad ones gave a bad reputation to all of them. But whatever.)

In any case, insane asylums acquired a bad reputation and were largely shut down in the western world. The ones that still exist are typically called "mental hospitals". This is probably technically inaccurate as they are not really hospitals, that is, their primary purpose is not treatment but to serve as a residential facility. It's more of a euphemism. Sometimes they are more accurately called "mental institutions".

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The two most commonly used nowadays are "mental hospital" and "asylum". Both would be understood in American English, but, in my experience at least, "mental hospital" has become more common.

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