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What Can Happen When Mental Illness is Ignored

I came across a fascinating piece about mental hospitals and the role conscientious objectors to WWII played in exposing the deplorable conditions of said hospitals.

The story focuses on Philadelphia State Hospital, also known as Byberry. More than 3,000 conscientious objectors, or CO’s, were assigned to work at mental hospitals across the country instead of being drafted to fight overseas. What the men assigned to Byberry found were conditions that seemed like something out of a Nazi concentration camp. They also witnessed much abuse from the attendants who were hired to care for the patients.

The “incontinent ward” was what the men called A Building. It was a large open room with a concrete slab for a floor. There were no chairs. There were no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. So hundreds of men — most of them naked — walked about aimlessly or hunched on the floor and huddled against the filthy bare walls.

Nearby was B Building; it was called the “violent ward” or the “death house,” because angry men sometimes violently attacked one another. In one room, rows and rows of men were strapped and shackled to their bed frames.

The story also includes photos from Charlie Lord. A CO who sneaked a camera into the hospital to document the things going on there.  Check out the slideshow. Lord and the other CO’s featured in the piece were instrumental in improving conditions for mental health hospitals all over the country. They even got a skeptical Eleanor Roosevelt to pay attention to the issue.

According to Steven Taylor, a professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, Roosevelt assumed these were photos from some institution in the South. She said she knew about those kinds of conditions in Mississippi or Alabama. When told that they had actually been taken at an institution in Philadelphia, Roosevelt then promised to support the reform campaign and wrote about what she’d seen to government health officials and journalists.

I can’t say I have much experience with state mental hospitals, but I do have experience with the psych wings of two hospitals. Jim has been hospitalized twice for his bipolar disorder.  I’m glad that the conditions at these hospitals was nothing like what is documented in the NPR story, but I was moved when reading it as I’ve become more sensitive in the last couple of years to mental illness.

The story is a good reminder of what can happen when we forget about our most delicate citizens. It should also serve as a wake-up call to America and Congress to increase funding for mental health hospitals and institutions. At a time when states are facing massive budget shortfalls, it is imperative that resources for these hospitals are kept intact.

Another Byberry is completely beyond the realm of possibility, especially as more and more mental hospitals are forced to close.

The health care reform deal that will be hammered out next week must include increased funding for the states so they can keep their mental hospitals open and so they can provide high quality mental health care to those in need of it most.

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