Jane Woodhouse McLaughlin (1914–2004) moved Colorado toward a more rights-based society for individuals with mental illness. As an assistant city attorney for Denver, first president of the Colorado Association for Mental Health, and a Democratic state representative, McLaughlin helped reform discriminatory health-care laws to provide dignified treatment for people living with mental illness. Her tireless efforts to overhaul Colorado’s dysfunctional and underfunded state psychiatric hospital network made the state a part of the nationwide deinstitutionalization movement, which replaced large psychiatric hospitals with specialized, community-based mental health care programs.
Jane Woodhouse was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 29, 1914, and raised in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In 1936 she graduated from Bennington College in Vermont with a theater degree. After an abrupt career change, McLaughlin worked for the Department of the Interior and the Office of Inter-American Affairs while attending Washington College of Law at American University from 1940 to 1946.
Woodhouse then moved to Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado Law School in 1948. A year after graduation, McLaughlin became Denver’s assistant city attorney under Mayor James Quigg Newton. Initially assigned to traffic court, she was quickly promoted to head of the city attorney’s health division. In her new position, she joined Dr. Florence Sabin’s crusade to improve Colorado’s public health and sat on Sabin’s Committee on Institutions for Children.
Mental Health Advocate
After World War II, people throughout the United States began to notice the troubling condition of state psychiatric hospitals. Allegations of abuse, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate funding motivated reformers to establish a new system of mental health care. This activism was sparked in part by the plight of returning veterans who suffered from trauma. In 1945 President Harry Truman attempted to pass universal health care to help treat people coming home from war. His national health-care bill failed, but he was able to pass smaller, more targeted initiatives such as the National Mental Health Act of 1946, which provided funding for research into the prevention of mental illness.
This new federal attention to mental health placed pressure on Colorado lawmakers to address overcrowding and other problems at the state’s largest psychiatric hospital, Colorado State Hospital (CSH) in Pueblo, as well as at the state’s two smaller institutions for children with cognitive and developmental disabilities: the State Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction and the State Home and Training School, called Ridge Home, in Arvada.
As lawmakers around the country grappled with the problem of mental health care, Woodhouse became the state’s main mental health activist. In 1953 the Colorado Association for Mental Health elected her as the group’s first president. The association focused on improving the facilities at Ridge and Grand Junction but later moved to addressing shortages of behavioral health professionals. Notably, Woodhouse worked to modernize Colorado’s antiquated lunacy laws to match current medical knowledge. She also worked to standardize these laws. Previously, each county had its own laws, many passed during the nineteenth century, for committing and paroling mental patients.
Woodhouse publicly challenged the stigma of hospitalization and advocated treating mental illness with the same compassion as physical illness. Her goal was to help people overcome the problems of mental illness that can hinder “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” She visited Denver civic and women’s organizations to convey this message and to raise money and awareness for mental healthcare in Colorado.
In 1956 Denver County voters elected McLaughlin to the Colorado House of Representatives, where she served two terms. In keeping with her interest in mental health, she served as chair of the State Institutions Committee, vice-chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, and a member of the Judiciary Committee. In 1958, under McLaughlin’s leadership, the Institutions Committee evaluated the state’s psychiatric hospitals and made plans to revamp the system to better help patients reach independence. The committee studied the pathbreaking Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, as a model for modernization, with the goals of shortening the length of hospitalizations and ending the practice of defaulting to lifelong institutional care.
The reform movement that McLaughlin helped lead in Colorado brought new public health infrastructure to the state. In 1959 the legislature approved an $800,000 pilot program to build an intensive psychiatric care unit at CSH. In further efforts to reduce overcrowding, legislators approved a second adult psychiatric hospital to exclusively serve the Denver metro area; it opened in 1961 as the Fort Logan Mental Health Center.
The construction of the Fort Logan facility advanced the deinstitutionalization movement in Colorado, even at large facilities such as CSH. In 1962 soldiers from Fort Carson helped relocate 5,000 CSH patients into twelve specialized divisions separated by age, diagnosis, and geographical region. By the end of the decade, a new emphasis on early diagnosis had helped drive the average length of stay down from sixteen years to fewer than two months. The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (as CSH is known today) now houses fewer than 500 patients. Furthermore, the state homes at Grand Junction and Ridge transitioned into smaller residential facilities for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities.
While in office, Woodhouse met Republican state representative Frederic T. McLaughlin, a cattle rancher from Basalt, and the couple married on February 20, 1960. They never had children of their own, but Frederic had two children from a previous marriage. Although the couple initially represented different political parties, Frederic later became a Democrat before his death in 1988.
After a fruitful political career, McLaughlin stayed active in local politics. She volunteered her time as a court-appointed guardian for children who were wards of the state. She died on July 21, 2004, in Aurora.
McLaughlin helped end the abuse of vulnerable people in Colorado’s state mental health institutions. Yet her successful efforts to move people from institutions to community clinics did not end the problems facing Colorado’s mental health system. Across the country, systemic financial issues and a lack of inpatient care for chronic mental illness have caused unforeseen problems. After President Ronald Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, community clinics lost federal funding and leadership. As state psychiatric hospitals closed, many individuals with mental illness ended up living in nursing homes, staying with their families, or becoming homeless. The resulting shift to self-medication, combined with a nationwide overreliance on criminal justice, led to skyrocketing rates of incarceration and recidivism among individuals with mental illness. Arguably, state prisons have become the new insane asylums.