Grampa, Interrupted.
September 26, 2006 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Somewhat of a follow-up to a previous question about my grandfather, I have some vague questions about law enforcement and the mental health system in 1950s America.

A re-cap: I have been trying to track down information on my grandfather, a man I never knew who apparently spent time in a state mental hospital.

Since my previous question was posted I've acquired a copy of his social security application, which confirmed that he was living at a state hospital in 1971 when he filled out the application. (thanks, Asparagirl)

The hospital he was at has since been closed but I've tracked down where the records would most likely be stored, and they should have been retained indefinitely. There's a legal process through which I can access them, assuming they can be found, and I'm working on it, but it will take a few months to go through the courts.

In the meantime, I found a sympathetic person at the district court in the town where my grandfather lived. He looked through the records and found that my grandfather was "arrested for a disturbance in 1954, which was dismissed." and "arrested again in 1958 for a disturbance and committed to the state hospital." It sounds like any more detailed records have either been purged or transferred to the hospital.

So at a minimum he was there from 1958 to 1971, probably longer. For a "disturbance?" Family legend has it that nobody would sign for his release.

Now for the point of this post: I'm trying to understand what the circumstances were like at the time. I know nowadays nobody would be sent to rot in a mental hospital for a "disturbance." What was it like back then? What did it take to get locked up? Could the cops just have someone committed that easily? Would the homeless people you see on the street in 2006 have been mental patients in 1958?

What does "a disturbance" mean? Could that include public drunkenness or assault?

Are there any further avenues I can check for more information on him?

Are there any books, fiction or non, that might help me better understand what the system was like back then?
posted by bondcliff to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
She technically committed herself, but Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted is a good picture of a private mental hospital at that time. The movie is crap, imo, but I did enjoy the book.
posted by sugarfish at 8:17 AM on September 26, 2006

I know that doctors in the 50s and 60s had a lot more power than they do today. It's possible that the medical establishment, rather than law enforcement, put your grandfather away.

Family lore tells me that when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in the 60s, she was not given an option about surgery: It would happen now, and she would not be permitted to leave the hospital. This was in Virginia

The Oregonian has done a series of articles about Oregon's treatment of mentally ill as well as developmentally delayed people. Both groups were often institutionalized for life and surgically sterilized against their will. Here's one link to an article about that.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: I should add that this all occurred in Massachusetts, so state-specific information is preferred, though anything on America in general is a welcome.

Unfortunatly, Netflix doesn't carry "Titicut Folies."
posted by bondcliff at 8:22 AM on September 26, 2006

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? It's certainly fiction, but a very close friend of mine worked in a mental hospital around the same time and said much of the book was the same as what he was seeing.

For example at the time he was a high school grad working his way through college with no experience in the field, he was thinking about med school and that spurred him to take the job. He would often take large >20 groups of patients with a variety of disorders out on day trips around a city, alone or with another student. Every one of the day trip stories ended with him honestly wondering why no one, patients or other people died. He also talked about electro shock therapy and how the patients lived with the knowledge that they'd repeatedly be subjected to it, and had no power over it. The doctors knew best and it was their job to treat the patients, so they did.

Of course all these stories are affected by the quality of the institute he was at, time, his opinions and the audience they were being told to. He is adamant that the care of patients is entirely different now than it was.
posted by Science! at 8:30 AM on September 26, 2006

Would the homeless people you see on the street in 2006 have been mental patients in 1958?

I believe so. It's popularly blamed on the Reagan administration but I think the process of closing state mental institutions and "liberating" the inmates started before him, and continued after. But I could be wrong, having no direct experience with this issue.
posted by Rash at 10:34 AM on September 26, 2006

Although it's more about the current insanity of the mental health world, Crazy is still a good read and does touch on the history and progression of the mental health field. It's non-fiction and the author, Pete Early, is a reporter for the Washington Post and started this book after his son was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. It's a mix of research/reporting interspersed with personal accounts with his son.
posted by unsigned at 11:49 AM on September 26, 2006

Are there any books, fiction or non, that might help me better understand what the system was like back then?

There has been a bunch of information written at the time (1940 to 1960), a number of undercover investigations of state hospitals (the hospital your grandfather was in was one of them) which lead to calls for reform. Albert Deutsch's book Shame of the States and an article published in Life started the ball rolling. This page gives a pretty good historical overview of all the changes occurring.

There are pop culture movies like Three Faces of Eve, The Snake Pit, The Night Runner and Harvey. Erving Goffman wrote a book called Asylums, Chris Calhoun wrote a book, which was made into a movie, about his time in a state psychiatric facility during the 1950's. Might want to look up terms like "social milieu therapy", GAP and Jack Pressman's, Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the limits of medicine, which gives some insight to the attitudes of the day.

Hope this helps.
posted by squeak at 12:36 PM on September 26, 2006

Unfortunatly, Netflix doesn't carry "Titicut Folies." Frederick Wiseman, the director of that documentary, tightly controls the distribution of all his films. University Libraries or the man himself are probably the only way to view it, though occasionally his work pops up on PBS.
posted by jrb223 at 1:59 PM on September 26, 2006

University Libraries or the man himself are probably the only way to view it, though occasionally his work pops up on PBS.

And google video ;)
posted by squeak at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2006

I used to live in Massachussetts, and my brother was first diagnosed as a schizophrenic there, back in the early '70's. Like a lot of young men in their 20's with that disease, he'd been "drifting" for several years after leaving the Army, including stints living back home with our folks, staying for months with friends, moving back with our folks, and getting an apartment with a roommate. He'd had a string of entry level jobs in a few years, and was clearly in need of a "fresh start" when he came to stay with me. Within a few weeks of arriving, his behavior became increasingly odd, and eventually, he freaked out my neighbors, a couple of college girls, when they found him standing on their doorstep, listening through their front door, at 6:30 one weekday morning. They called the cops, who brought him over to me at 6:45 a.m., on condition I promised to take him to a hospital for evaluation. He claimed he heard noises of torture coming from the girl's condo. That's the first anyone in our family recognized what was wrong, really, with my brother.

By the early '70s, the laws in Massachusetts had been changed regarding involuntary committment, and while I could have forced my brother into short term treatment, the length of time he would have been compelled to stay was only 14 days, just enough to began medication. And the medications available in that era, weren't all that effective on an outpatient basis. My brother certianly didn't want to be in a mental hospital (I couldn't blame him for that), and just wanted to leave and go back to live with my parents, which they also wanted at that time. So I didn't push the point, and suggested strongly that they take him for treatment when he got home. I put him on an airplane, and he went back to a small town in Kansas, and continued for several more years with fits and start jobs and living situations. But it took another several years, and another run in with the police, to finally convince my parents to not fight the involuntary commitment that the police there then pressed, after he broke a large storefront window, trying to help Jesus down off the Cross, in an Easter storefront display. As a result of that, he spent 6 months at the Osawatomie State Hospital in Kansas, in 1980, where he got his first real treatment for schizophrenia, when he was 27.

Schizophrenics like my brother, and, perhaps as you'll learn, your grandfather, are often first diagnosed when they are apprehended by the police, for some strange or seemingly threatening behavior. In the '50's and '60s, a diagnosis of schizophrenia was often accompanied by an immediate commitment to a state hospital, because the drugs used to "treat" the condition were severally disabling, and not effective outside a hospital environment. Haldol, thorazine, and similar drugs available at that time often produced as side effect called tardive dyskinesia--a condition marked by involuntary muscle spasms and twitches in the face and body. This condition may be permanent, and appears to be most common among the elderly, especially women.

So, it was not uncommon for schizophrenics of that era to have been "locked away" for years, if their intial symptoms were severe. And make no mistake, schizophrenia was and is a common condition in young men, affecting something like 1% of the population, and of that, a disproprotionate number of men vs. women. Statistics tell us that schizophrenics are far more prone to suicide than the general population, and those with severe symptoms are usually seen as an obvious danger to themselves or others in public situtations. Many less disturbed schizophrenics are now seen on the streets of American cities, as the stereotypical muttering cart people most people tend to avoid, but they often bounce in and out of the judicial system for years, their conditions slowly worsening, until they do meet the obvious test of being a continuing danger to themselves or others. Sadly, many die in shelters or skid row holes, trying to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, too proud and sometimes too paranoid, to confront their mental illness.

The good news is that newer atypical anti-psychotic medications have enabled a lot of less seriously disturbed people to control their thinking well enough to return to normal lives, holding jobs, and raising families. Others, like my brother, are permanently disabled, but can at least live at home, as functional household members. But in your grandfather's day, those medication options didn't exist, and even if they had, and his disease was severe enough by the time he got treatment, hospitalization may still have been his only real possibility, as schizophrenics tend to discontinue their medications, and fail to continue medical supervision and adjustment of medication dosages at a high rate, unless supported by family members.

For your sake, I hope your grandfather's story has a different basis. I offer this mainly because what you've told us would generally fit for a man of that era and locale, who'd struggled with the slow onset of schizophrenia in his late twenties, as many, including my brother, did. But I would urge you to continue your efforts to understand the causes of your grandfather's problems, as there is some evidence that schizophrenia runs in families. If that was the cause of your grandfather's problems, you'll want to know, I suppose, and it may explain much of your family's reactions to his situation. Denial of mental illness is still a pretty common family reaction in America, and was endemic in that day and age.

I hope this helps.
posted by paulsc at 3:19 PM on September 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

Would the homeless people you see on the street in 2006 have been mental patients in 1958?

Absolutely. The PC thinking is that institutionalization is a Bad Thing and that all that would be needed to allow the patients to maximize their functionality would be to have them live in the real world. We see the result.

Over the years, "creating a disturbance" has been used as a very wide-ranging category that catches quite a few antisocial and undesirable behaviors. That got him into the system, but getting him out would have required satisfying the institution's psychiatrist that he was no longer a threat to others or to himself. Naturally most patients would not be able to make this showing, so they would stay inside.
posted by yclipse at 6:07 PM on September 26, 2006

Re: the schizophrenia-

Schiz usually onsets in the 20's. Her grandfather was committed in his 50's. Seems a bit late for that- although I'm sure there are cases that develop that late, or maybe he kept it mostly under control until then. But that seems unlikely, given the nature of schizophrenia...
posted by thejrae at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2006

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