I took a little trip down memory lane yesterday, courtesy of the Internet. I was trying to remember the name of the very inspiring medical director of Ypsilanti State Hospital, when I worked there back in the late 1960s. I never found his name but I found some pretty terrifying photos—befores and afters—on a site called, sadly, Historic Asylums. You might want to check it out.
I did my first-year field placement there as an MSW student in Ann Arbor. My "patients" had been in the institution an average of 40 years. Their permanently discolored fingers from incessant chain smoking, their soft padded hospital slippers and hospital gowns, rows of human beings sitting in straight-backed chairs lined up around the perimeter of the enormous empty "day room" in the "locked unit"—it all came back to me when I watched this video, taken several years after I left there, before they closed the place down in the early 1990s.
I had remembered my rodent-infested cement office, the bars on the windows, the dim lighting, but what I had forgotten were the sounds of the place: jangling keys on massive key-rings sported by the wardens, the heavy metal doors slamming and echoing all the way down the dark underground corridors, the faint whimpers and occasional profane outbursts from the patients who might have refused to take their daily Thorazine or were headed back from an unspeakable treatment.
A year and a half later, I began my first job post-MSW back at the same "asylum." But by now the walls were coming down. We were starting a whole new era—community mental health! People with mental illness were going to live out in the community now. We were sending them home from the state hospital (aka, the start of homelessness).
I had been hired to set up the new admitting unit and to site and staff the first halfway houses in the town of Ypsilanti. We had to get people in, diagnosed, "treated," and back out into the community within 48 hours max. Forty-eight hours versus forty-eight years! I remember that the hardest job was cajoling the new residents to want to live in these pristine halfway houses.
As a newly minted social worker, someone must have figured, naively, that they could trust me with real patients. I remember several young men in my caseload. One committed suicide within his first days there; another (still in the long-term unit) was my age and had been there since childhood. I was particularly upset when I was assigned to work with a young mother who seemed pretty sane to me. Her diagnosis was for a character disorder because she wanted to have her children go to live with their father while she sorted her life out. I was told that any mother who wanted to do that must be insane.
Fast forward to last week.