Objective To establish whether reinstitutionalisation is occurring in mental health care and, if so, with what variations between western European countries.
Design Comparison of data on changes in service provision.
Setting Six European countries with different traditions of mental health care that have all experienced deinstitutionalisation since the 1970s—England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.
Outcome measures Changes in the number of forensic hospital beds, involuntary hospital admissions, places in supported housing, general psychiatric hospital beds, and general prison population between 1990-1 and 2002-3.
Results Forensic beds and places in supported housing have increased in all countries, whereas changes in involuntary hospital admissions have been inconsistent. The number of psychiatric hospital beds has been reduced in five countries, but only in two countries does this reduction outweigh the number of additional places in forensic institutions and supported housing. The general prison population has substantially increased in all countries.
Conclusions Reinstitutionalisation is taking place in European countries with different traditions of health care, although with significant variation between the six countries studied. The precise reasons for the phenomenon remain unclear. General attitudes to risk containment in a society, as indicated by the size of the prison population, may be more important than changing morbidity and new methods of mental healthcare delivery.