Here’s a story for you. I transmit it in the tradition of oral storytelling, which is to say I’m not doing any research, just going from memory. It is true to the best of my recollection. Even if the facts aren’t exact, you’ll get the message.
There was a fellow who was living with his mother. This might have been about seventy years ago, and he was having trouble sleeping. A New York State psychiatric center had just been built near them. I don’t remember which one. Anyway, in those days nobody really knew what a psychiatric center was or what it did, but Mom suggested to her son that he go over there and see if they could help him with his sleeping problem, so he did.
The psych center admitted the guy, then a few days later they got his mom to sign involuntary commitment papers on him. They told her not to tell her son because it would upset him. Duh, do you think? Under Mental Health Law, a man had just been imprisoned by his mom, who didn’t know any better. She’d been sold a bill of goods by some doctor that this was in the guy’s best interest. The guy didn’t even know it. Even in the 1940’s a guy couldn’t be put in jail without being told the criminal charges against him, but this was psychiatry, which is a law unto itself.
I think the guy’s name was Charles Bartlett; anyway, we’ll call him that. Charles spent the next 32 years of his life locked in the psych center.
In the beginning, his mother would come and visit him. After she died, an aunt came to see him every so often. The hospital staff would make notes about this in his chart. Occasionally Charles would receive packages, at Christmas for example; this too would be noted in his chart. What wouldn’t be noted was that the hospital wasn’t treating him. He’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia (see also https://behindthelockeddoors.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/how-i-got-diagnosed-with-unconscious-paranoid-schizophrenia/) but he wasn’t being treated; he was being warehoused.
About once a year the psychiatrist du jour would re-interview him and then send him back to the ward for another year. It was sort of like a parole hearing but run by a single psychiatrist, not a panel of people educated in the law. Charles was a quiet and patient guy who didn’t give anybody any trouble. (Let this be a lesson to you about being quiet and patient: it gets you nowhere. Make noise!) Charles would tell the staff that he wanted out. They self-righteously viewed him as a total loser, i.e., psychiatric patient, and would patronizingly ask, “Well, where would you go? How would you take care of yourself?” as if to say, “You couldn’t possibly.” Charles would reply that he’d go in town to a street that had several boarding houses, rent himself a room, and then sue the hospital.
This went on, year after year, for decades. Then, in 1965, the New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Service (MHLS) was formed. It is not part of the NYS Office of Mental Health; it is part of the judiciary. “By State law, MHLS is placed in the judicial branch of New York State government, independent of other state agencies. MHLS staff are appointed by the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.” What that means is that the psychiatrists aren’t in charge. Under Mental Hygiene Law, your doctor can call the police and get you locked up, but the Mental Hygiene Legal Service doesn’t have to listen to your doctor. MHLS can come get you out, which is what they did for Charles Bartlett.
An MHLS staff person was making the rounds of everybody at the NYS psychiatric center, came to Charles and asked, “Would you like to leave?”
Charles replied, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
This is where it gets really sick: once the MHLS raised its ugly head, the hospital started paying attention to Charles. All of a sudden, there are notes in his chart. He’s being seen by doctors; he’s being given medication: he’s being treated like a patient instead of an object gathering dust in a warehouse. In the last nine months of his hospitalization there were as many notes in his chart as there had been in the previous thirty years. Charles was noticed because The Law came in, and the only thing that doctors are afraid of is lawyers. (To be continued)