In the science of mental illness and the practice of care for it, so much has changed. Yet sometimes it seems that even over several hundred years so little has. Here are links to sites worth visiting to remember notable individuals with psychiatric disabilities and how care for mental illness was at earlier times.
Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash, Jr. was tragically killed in June 2015 in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. The extraordinary life of John Nash, including his many lost years in the maelstrom of schizophrenia, was celebrated at a memorial service hosted by Princeton University’s Math Department on the Princeton campus. The keynote lecture was given by Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, which became the subject of the Oscar nominated movie of the same name starring Russell Crowe. Nasar recounted Nash’s amazing life–and especially heralded the heroic role his dear wife Alicia played as a family member in Nash’s ultimate recovery. PsychOdyssey’s Tom Pyle attended the event and offers his own reflections of Nash here.
The California Memorial Project is a collaborative effort between the Peer/Self-Advocacy Unit at Protection & Advocacy, Inc., the California Network of Mental Health Clients, and Capital People First. People with developmental and mental disabilities share a common history at state institutions. The California Memorial Project seeks to reclaim that history.
The Gardens at Saint Elizabeth’s is a national memorial to remember once forgotten psychiatric patients. In addition to remembrance, it will also be a place of recovery offering dignity and hope to anyone living with mental illness. The memorial, which was proposed in 2004, will include metal markers from all 50 states listing the number of patients interred and at which institutions, as well as gardens and a reflecting pool. It is being designed by the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design, and will be incorporated into the existing 10-acre cemetery adjacent to the new hospital.
Saint Elizabeth’s, which opened in 1855, was the first federally funded asylum. On June 10, 2009, a dedication for the memorial was celebrated at Saint Elizabeths in Washington, D.C. Saint Elizabeths has begun preparing the cemetery, which holds the graves of more than 4,500 psychiatric patients, including Civil War veterans.
Once a shining refuge on a hill for 10,000 patients, with legacy buildings and campus designed by the noted mental health reformer Thomas Kirkbride, (including, in the 1950s, folk singer Woody Guthrie), Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital fell into abysmal neglect under state control. Two videos of Greystone, as it was and as it is now, show the stark contrast. How did Greystone come to such a fate? What does it say about societal attitudes about the mentally ill?
Founded in 1848 by the legendary 19th century social reformer Dorothea Dix, once home to over 4000 patients, today with only 375 beds in service, Trenton Psychiatric Hospital is a faded, even forgotten monument to a one-time benevolent institutional care model for mental illness–and a modern-day reminder of what can become of social welfare enterprises taken over by and managed by government.
There’s a new book on PsychOdyssey’s to-read list: Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Hospitals, by Christopher Payne, a compendium of essays and beautiful photographs of the melancholy, now abandoned structures that were once grand institutions. We look forward to reviewing it soon. For now, we want share the the book’s splendid introduction, originally a 2009 essay, entitled “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum”, from the New York Review of Books by the noted neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks.
Not only did America experience great dislocations of disinstitutionalization. The BBC recently produced a compelling documentary, “Mental” (59 minutes), about the closing of mental asylums in the United Kingdom. Mental offers a useful comparative to our own American experience.
At long last, the decrepit 128 year old Oregon State Mental Hospital was slated for demolition. As the contractors prepared for their work, they came upon an astounding discovery: a forgotten storage room holding the cremated remains of nearly 3500 patients! The lost souls had died at the hospital from 1914 to the 1970s. Now Oregon is seeking to match the remains to their relatives. The Associated Press ran a story on this sorry situation in January 2011.
In 1938 when Life magazine was only two years old, legendary photojournalist Albert Eisenstaedt gained access to the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital and photographed life as it was at the time for those with psychiatric disabilities under the custodial care of a state hospital. To view the entire photo essay, click here.