The Lives They Left Behind

That is the title of a book about the inmates of a mental institution – who they were, what became of them, based on the institution’s records and the luggage the patients brought with them and never retrieved. There is a website that gives some example images and biographies.

This is an incredibly saddening look at one mental institution, the Willard State Hospital in New York, and how patients were treated there. For most of these people there was no effort to treat or rehabilitate them. They were confined, possibly drugged, and kept, often for decades. A few were eventually released; most died there. Some showed little or no evidence of psychiatric illness, but were confined anyway.

What happened at Willard wasn’t a fluke. It’s representative of how mental illness was handled at the time – little or no treatment, not even a careful reassessment of a patient’s condition over time, just confinement and often medication to ensure docility. Once tagged with a label of mental illness, it was almost impossible to change it or to be seen as well enough to leave.

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