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Mental Health Care Past and Present

In terms of mental health care and treatment, today we can be both thankful and fearful.  Hospitals like the one that appeared in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are, for the most part, a thing of the past in the U.S.  The flip side of this is the other fact: although hospitals like this do not exist any longer, they filled an urgent need that now is given over to prisons.

Dr. Brooks, 96, supervised this Oregon State Hospital for nearly 30 years, and he points out that although places like this state hospital had its flaws and weren’t perfect, they were at least out there and trying to help.  He states that today prisons have taken over the job with barely a pretense of treatment.  “Three-fourths of all mentally ill people are in jails or penitentiaries,” he said.

The hospital, while still a functioning mental hospital, now has a museum dedicated to the history of mental health.  Along with information about mental illness and its treatment in the past and present, there are displays connected to the movie.

Steel examination tables are next to a photograph of the Oregon State Insane Asylum baseball team, a straitjacket, handcuffs and night watch books carrying recorded interactions with the patients.   The hospital admitted alcoholics, dementia patients, syphilis sufferers and any individuals with the catchall diagnosis of “mania.”  Many women voluntarily came, it is speculated, to seek asylum from violent home fronts.

Hopefully places like the Oregon State Hospital Museum will help to educate the public about mental illness.  And I hope that this will cause people to begin to question what we are doing for individuals with mental illness.

Is prison for the mentally ill ever an answer?  What holes do we have in our mental health treatment that need to be filled?  How are doctors and the health system in the U.S. continuing to maintain, at least in part, the old approach to mental illness?  We need to start treating mental illness as the health problem that it is, treating it humanely and with top notch medical help and not shutting it away in prisons hoping “doing time” will make it all better.

For more on the museum go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/us/cuckoos-nest-hospital-is-now-a-museum.html?hp

-Bernadette

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