I was locked up in a long term mental hospital for 3 years. It is a spirit crushing, demeaning, devastating experience. For a person who likes to laugh and tell jokes, it was an alien world. Not once in my 3 years did I see anyone crack a smile or laugh.
For most of us in everyday life, either knowingly or not, we exercise our human spirit in a very healthy way. We engage in conversations with family members, friends, and coworkers. We tell jokes, we give hugs, handshakes, and back slaps, and pursue
interests that make us feel alive . We do not avoid activities that bring our emotions into play; we feel great joy, sadness, sorrow, grief, and we often cry.
This is not the case in a long term mental hospital. The human spirit is crushed, either from medication, life conditions, underlying illness, or a combination of all three.
Unlike myself, most of the other patients had been institutionalized for their entire lives. They never held jobs, had never been married or had kids.
Also unlike myself, none of them had ever gone to college and probably had never finished high school. The only time they left a mental health facility was to be transferred to another mental health facility. Their day consisted of going to breakfast, watching TV, going to lunch, watching TV, going to dinner, getting their meds, and going to bed. That was it.
I never knew when or if I would ever be released from this facility. I had very few visitors, and no friends inside the walls of the hospital. I spent all my time reading whatever books I could find.
Finally, an incident happened to raise my human spirit and consciousness. One day at lunch, an elderly black man named Cornelius refused to turn over a piece of fruit to one of the aides ( trading fruit with other patients was prohibited but never enforced, up to that point). As a result, this man was savagely beaten by one of the aides. He was unable to speak intelligibly, so it was very unlikely that he would report this incident. Furthermore, it was also very unlikely that any other patient would report the incident. That is not what patients did.
I, however did report the incident to a unit leader. He seemed very interested and I thought that action might be taken. As far as I was concerned, nothing short of termination was an appropriate punishment for this aide.
After a day or two, I met with a committee person from the hospital who interrogated me extensively about the incident. Once again, I felt very confident that strong measures would be taken.
But nothing happened.
The aide returned to work and everything continued as if normal. The incident continued to haunt me while I was hospitalized and continues to haunt me today, several years later.
So with some encouragement from my therapist, I decided to do something about it. I wrote a letter to the chief administrator of the hospital , telling him, in detail, exactly what happened. I asked him to investigate the matter, and please respond to me.
I wrote a letter to my lawyer. He didn’t respond. I called the local newspaper. They were polite to me but not interested. I wrote another letter to the chief administrator and a person from his office finally responded. Shockingly, this person admitted that things used to be bad at the hospital, but were much better now. She also said they would investigate, even though they had little information about an incident that happened long ago.
She said she would get back to me. As of this time, that hasn’t happened.
It is my fear that this could happen again. People in mental health institutions are locked in. They can’t step out, walk down the street, and file a police report. They have limited access to phones. But the biggest challenge they face is the inability to communicate when an injustice has occurred to themselves or to others. The hospital can count on this inability to keep things quiet. As far as anyone on the outside is concerned, everything is fine.
Now that I am no longer there, I worry about those I left behind. Who will speak out if a patient gets beaten? Who will file a report? What is the likelihood that Cornelius and patients like him will get beaten again, and again?
I am in the middle of this investigation, and I’m not going to give up. I want to be sure that patients in the mental health system are no longer beaten.
That’s the least I can do.
For me, that worried feeling never, ever goes away.