Castles used as mental hospitals in Slovenia, a dying practice

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Slovenia may be a small country, but it is full of castles. After the Second World War, these castles were nationalized by Tito's socialist government and in some cases converted into prisons, homeless shelters or mental institutions.

One such case is the castle of Hrastovec, about 15 kilometres outside of Slovenia's second largest city, Maribor. The beautiful building was turned into a mental institution after the war, and remains one to this day. The director of Hrastovec, Josip Lukac spoke to us about this peculiar practice:

"In Western Europe, castles have been transformed into museums or are still owned by aristocrats. It is typical for the Balkans that castles were emptied after WW II and the authorities put people with special needs - the homeless, alcoholics, mentally ill - in castles. The castles had no suitably trained personnel and there was no health care. It was a typically Balkan phenomenon, Western Europe was different."

The institution around Hrastovec currently houses 630 people with varying degrees of psychological problems. The castle itself is home to roughly 150 patients. Lukac admits that the conditions in the old castle are less than ideal. In some places, 40 inmates share only 4 toilets. But Hrastovec's days are numbered. The castle will stop housing patients within two or three years. Lukac explains:

"We decided to move [from the castle] for professional and cultural reasons. Firstly, castles are designed for aristocrats, not for the mentally ill. Secondly, castles give a feeling of being captured and pushed away by society. Thirdly, in the Hrastovec castle there are large rooms shared by 10 to 12 inmates, so there is no personal area for the individual, one is always surrounded by 30 or 40 people and that causes tensions."

The current trend in Slovenia, when it comes to mental health issues is towards decentralization. Thus, the facilities at Hrastovec will be scaled down to house between 200 and 250 people. The rest will be transferred to smaller, local institutions. Another important factor is the continuing growth of Slovenia's tourism sector. Visits were up by 3% this year, and the opening of budget airline routes between Ljubljana and elsewhere has brought in a steady stream of tourists.

The fate of Hrastovec is still undecided, but it could conceivably be transformed into a museum or other tourist attraction. Either way, in Slovenia, the practice of using castles as mental institutions will soon be a thing of the past.