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Closing the Cuckoo’s Nest Hospital

Oregon State
Ah, mental hospitals. Most states have closed theirs (or are in the process of trying to do so), seeing them as anachronisms of another time, when the mentally ill were separated from the rest of society. Private psychiatric hospitals still exist (and flourish), offering inpatient services up to 30 days a year (usually the maximum stay insurance will cover). But the public versions of mental hospitals have largely seen their last days.

But not in Oregon.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the infamous 1975 film that led to a movement to close most of these kinds of public facilities. It was filmed at the sprawling campus of the Oregon State Hospital, a testament to the kinds of facilities government used to build and fund in the belief that such places were good and helpful to the people treated there. But problems at such facilities existed nearly from the start, as it takes special types of people to staff and take care of the emotionally vulnerable souls found in such hospitals. Sadly, most hospitals paid little attention to the quality of staff they hired, resulting in serious abuses and problems:

Although mean Nurse Ratched [from the movie] was pure fiction, the Oregon State Hospital has struggled with some very real troubles over the years, including overcrowding, crumbling floors and ceilings, outbreaks of scabies and stomach flu, sexual abuse of children by staff members, and patient-on-patient assaults.

These problems are not unique to Oregon State — you can find them at practically any state-run hospital for people with mental health issues. That’s because such facilities, often started off with a lot of fanfare and funding, quickly fade into the background and struggle to keep their funding in times of government hardship.

It usually takes some sort of gruesome discovery or horrible abuse to bring about change in government. In Oregon, it took finding some cremated remains not returned to family members (apparently sexual abuse of children by adult staff members wasn’t sufficient):

Politicians had been talking for years about the need to replace the hospital, but didn’t get serious about it until a group of legislators made a grim discovery during a 2004 tour: the cremated remains of 3,600 mental patients in corroding copper canisters in a storage room. The lawmakers were stunned.

So the old building that has mostly been abandoned, the J Building, will be torn down to make way for the new:

Milos Forman, the director, lived for six weeks at the institution and had his actors study real patients, according to a 1975 account in Rolling Stone magazine. Nicholson became depressed because of what he saw, including electroshock being administered to a patient.

State leaders decided in 2006 to build a new, $300 million, 620-bed hospital at the site of the oldest and most dilapidated part of the complex, the J Building, a yellow-painted brick structure with brown trim, a towering cupola, and iron gratings on the windows. […]

It is not just a bricks-and-mortar exercise Oregon is undertaking to improve care for the mentally ill. State leaders have pledged beefed-up staffing levels, new treatment programs and better living conditions.

We’ve heard it before. We only hope Oregon state leaders live up to their pledge and provide not only a shiny new building to their charges, but also appropriate staffing levels and care from those staff to actually provide a therapeutic environment. A government running an inpatient mental hospital seems like something from another time…

Read the full article: `Cuckoo’s Nest’ hospital to be torn down

Closing the Cuckoo’s Nest Hospital

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Closing the Cuckoo’s Nest Hospital. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Jul 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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