Suitcases from the asylum

Reply Sun 7 Nov, 2010 05:08 pm
One of my favorite photo essays ever is Mary Ellen Mark's "Ward 81" (www.maryellenmark.com (select "books", select "ward 81)) so when I heard about a new book "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic" (www.suitcaseexhibit.org/flashSite.html) I was immediately interested.

From the site:

Based on almost 10 years of historical detective work, Peter Stastny and Darby Penney have written about the lives of 10 people who were committed to Willard State Hospital in New York’s Finger Lakes during the first half of the 20th century. Starting with the belongings left behind in these individuals’ suitcases, the authors sifted through collections of photographs, old letters, diaries, archives, and personal mementos to uncover who these people were before they disappeared for decades behind the institution’s walls. They were artists, soldiers, musicians, teachers, nurses, laborers, and skilled craftsmen who led active, complicated, even fascinating lives before pain, loss, peculiar beliefs, ill-health, poverty, spiritual distress, unseen voices and circumstance intervened. The resulting volume is a fully illustrated social history, a moving—and devastating—group portrait of 20th century American psychiatric care.

I haven't read the actual book yet but I understand that it asks the question -- have things improved for the mentally ill since most state hospitals have closed.

I think this is a really important question since many people who would have been institutionalized previously don't currently get adequate care. I'm thinking in particular about the kid who was sent back to Russia when his adoption failed because his family could not get proper care for him but I'm sure there are thousands upon thousands of similar stories.

I'm not sure what I think about it so I'm wondering what you think about it.

Care to share an opinion to help enlighten me?
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Reply Wed 1 Dec, 2010 08:59 pm
Wish I didn't miss this thread when it first came up.

Ward 81 appears to belong to the depressing subgenre of the documentary photography section.

The State Hospital Attic exhibit is another excellent example of dark era in the realm of institutionalized social history opened up to reveal how things were and institutions needed to change in order to help people they were assigned to help in the first place.
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Reply Mon 10 Jan, 2011 11:13 pm
I worked in an institution, first as a nursing aide, and then as a recreation aide, during the 1960s. It was primarily a place for the profoundly physically and mentally disabled, but there were people of every other kind, both legally committed and voluntarily there, as well. If you have any questions I will answer as best I can. Roy
Reply Tue 11 Jan, 2011 09:55 am
Hi Roy and welcome to A2K.

That must have been fascinating.

Do you think people were better cared for in institutions then they are now?

I have really mixed feelings about it.

Over the last few months my city has had a rash of people killed by the police. Almost all of the people killed had mental health problems. I can't help but wonder if it would be safer for the people themselves, the police and the general public if these people hadn't been institutionalized.

I know that there were charges that the institutions were horrific and brutal places so it's hard to say that that's a better alternative.

I'm really curious about what it was actually like in an institution.
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Reply Wed 12 Jan, 2011 10:21 pm
Thanks, The place was a community, built as a TB sanitarium originally, on the top of a mountain. Buildings were all stone, but not 'one flew over the coo-coos nest' plain. Very beautiful place. Many buildings, roads, tunnels, church, movie theater, auditorium, gym, store, summer camp, post office and farm at one time, but those gone by the time I got there. And the people who lived there thought they lived in a community, the staff, like myself were thought of as 'special transients'.

The residents were generally of two groups, the ones that knew who they were, where they were at, and that they owned the place, such as it was. The others were profoundly mentally disabled and lived without a self-aware existence.

The question is, were these people better off when they were put into private, for profit, organizational care? In Pa. most, but not all, of the profoundly mentally disabled were moved to a few remaining 'institutions', so they stayed on. But of the remaining majority, I would say that once the transition was past (which was terrible: 'familes' of people who had lived together all of their lives were split up), but following that period, most were no better off, and no worse off. The fact was that the old institutions like the one I worked at were far, far to expensive to operate today. They were little cities to themselves, something out of long ago past.

As to the brutality of the place, it's not true. Think about your high school, and how people interacted. Love, hate, indifference, everything in between. The institution was just a bunch of people, acting like people.
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