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ahe aive ae Beh
hen Willard Psvchiatric Center in New Ti-rk's
Finger Lakes region closed in oiO. after 20 years of
operation, hundreds of suitcases w-ere discovered in the
attic of an abandoned building; this luggage belonged
to men and women who were involuntarily admitted to
the facility from the late io'" mid-2:':'' centuries.
From the steamer-trunks, cardboard boxes, dufle-
bags. and suitcases, essential details surfaced about
these people's lives. Their asylum years, as traced in
the medical records, contrast dramatically with the
richness and poignancy of their belongings: letters,
photographs, diaries, and religious items: evidence
of careers, like nurses' collars an army uniform.
needlework, and photography equipment; and
e\er-cda- items like clothing, housewares, books and
personal papers. The suitcases speak to aspirations.
accomplishments, community connections, and also to
loss and isolation: they depict their owners' lives in all
their varieyr and complexity.
These stories shed light on the history of mental health
care in America through a series of -ery personal
lenses. Each portrait provides an opening to consider
some of the issues that affected these people: poverty,
displacement, physical illness, loss of loved ones. the
experience of hearing disembodied \voices, religiously
driven guilt and rare acts of redemption, and the many
ways in \-hich the psychiatric system failed them.
a he suffering illustrated bI tche lives of the
suitcase owners con tinues todal\ often differing
more in form than in substance trom the lives o(
mental patients -( or i:':.. years ago. If hospital
stais are now considerably shorter. they aIre no
more marked by recovery- than in the dca(i of the
large sctae hospitals like \Willard. While many
fewer people no\w spend decades in hospitals. tens
of thousands live in group homes, nursing homes.
board-and-care facilities, or the screec. largely
isolated from their communities. Thousands more
languiIh in 1ails and prisons. For manv; the drugs
intended co help them cause secondary disaibilicie.
andc. which increasing frequency; early deach from
ailmencs like hear disease and dclibeces.
A. long a.s there have been as.lums and mental
hospitals. there have been patients \who find their
confinement an inlustice. The modern ex-patients
movement began in the o-.:.-,. caking its inspiration
from the civil right movement, the w-omen's
movement, and the disabilitv movement. Like these
groups. ex-patients and their allies are concerned
w\Vih human and civil rights. w-ih prejudice and
discriminiacion. and thev \work cow-ard a future
in \-hich the larger societv \1ill recognize the full
humanirv of people \wih ps.chicaric disabilities.
To learn more albouc the suitcase ow-ners, the
hitorv oif mental health policy and treiamenc
from the perspectives it patients, and the
movement for human righcl In psychiaItrx. v-iit
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