Sunday, March 9, 2014

Restoring the humanity of men and women who died in psychiatric institutions

The Lives they Left Behind is a haunting book and online exhibition that brings to life the stories of men and women institutionalized in a New York Psychiatric Hospital during the 2oth Century.

The Willard Psychiatric Centre in the state of New York operated for 126 years as  a psychiatric institution until its closure in 1995

When the Hospital closed in 1995, staff discovered 440 cases suitcases filled with the personal belongings and possessions of people detained in the institution, many of whom died there.  Many of the cases were untouched since their owners packed them decades earlier before entering the institution. The suitcases and their contents bore witness to the rich, complex lives their owners lived prior to being committed to Willard.

The discovery of the suitcases was the catalyst for a 2004 exhibition and the book The Lives They Left Behind  and online exhibition of the same name.

Many of the patients were  immigrants who had little or no family nearby. The stories contained in the book show that many people were institutionalized after an immediate crises-  health crises, a death in the family or the loss of a job, something that would rarely need lifelong institutionalization, however they were institutionalized and detained for the remainder of their lives.
Here are the gripping personal dramas of new immigrants and native-born Americans coping with a host of problems in times of war and economic hardship. The confusion following upon displacement; the rage or despair that resulted from illness, loss of loved ones or work; the experience of hearing disembodied voices were only some of the misfortunes that put them on the path to an institutionalization from which most would never escape alive. As it restores the humanity of the individuals it so poignantly evokes, The Lives They Left Behind reveals the vast historical inadequacies of a psychiatric system that has yet to heal itself.
In a similar vein, the Australian short film Maraquita explores the story of the false incarceration of an Australian women in an Australian psychiatric hospital.

The story is told by her son Tony who visits the institution where she was incarcerated for 22 years on a diagnosis of being 'mildly eccentric'. Maraquita was separated from her 5 children and subject to experimental treatment and operations without her consent.

 Tony spent 50 years of his life seeking justice for his mother.

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