Friday, November 28, 2014

A Graveyard Where the Mentally Ill Lie Forgotten

State psychiatric hospitals were self-contained cities and many patients were sent to live there for the remainder of their lives. It wasn't always a good life and it certainly didn't provide what we would consider adequate protection of their dignity in all respects. Yet, we hear from some mental health historians that these hospitals were marvels of their time with lavish furnishings, industries where skills were honed, picnics near ponds and all that anyone could want in a "home." I tend to disagree because, while I've seen the romanticized photos and heard the delightful tales, I've also seen the reality.

Today, I read an article that addressed one of my concerns and that is the anonymity in death that these lifers received from the institutions they could never leave. So many things come up when you consider how people were sent to these hospitals and what the treatment actually was that I read the piece with some small degree of anger, indignity and a wish to help. But there are those who have taken up the cause and are already helping and fighting an intransigent bureaucracy that adheres to laws that don't seem appropriate for the task at hand.

The sad story of how someone disappeared into the vast state psychiatric hospital network and then was forgotten even in death has been well-documented in "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a state hospital attic." The pathetic contents of those bundles tell too many sad tales, but sometimes we do have to view them in order to make things right for the deceased.

New York City has its own sad Potter's Field cemetery on Hart's Island for those who have died, unclaimed, or found in the rivers or on streets. While inputting names into a genealogical database, I came across many where there was a simple notation that the body had been found "at the foot of 42nd Street pier" or some other nondescript note. Personhood was lost for these unknowns, but the psychiatric hospitals knew full well who they were burying and, in keeping with confidentiality laws still in existence, these patients were buried under nameless markers. Many of the markers were thrown away or lost to vandalism because their metal content was worth more than the person whose grave they marked.

The question of social stigma would seem to be evident here, but isn't there something missing? Aren't we refusing to recognize the very existence of these patients and honor them in death? Do we just toss everything away and leave the story untold, the travails unrecognized, the debt unpaid? Yes, many of them no longer have living relatives, so who is damaged by providing this name?

Actually, it would be a benefit for anyone wanting to research their family genealogy and possible connection to medical illnesses. Not everyone sent to a state psychiatric hospital had a mental illness. I know of cases where persons had undiagnosed diabetes, gout of the head and even epilepsy, who were sent to live out their lives in these institutions. What kind of mental health treatment would they have received? I doubt it would have been appropriate.

Were the medically ill subjected to the fire hose treatments known as a form of hydrotherapy (spas now use the Scotch hose which is supposed to be "invigorating"), the tubs, chained to walls, strapped in beds and various other "treatments" including the pulling of teeth and removal of reproductive organs? Forget the lovely photos of the decorated hallways at Christmas time or the alleged frolicking pondside as they gathered reeds to make furniture for sale. Look at the reality.

Do the deceased psychiatric patients deserve to be memorialized with a simple marker or not? You answer that question.

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