A recent post on The Wall Street Journal’s health blog is a review of “The lives they left behind: Suitcases from a state hospital attic”, which is now on display at the New York Public library through the month of January. The display features items left behind from patients who stayed at Willard State hospital, a former psychiatric hospital which closed its doors finally in 1995. According to the blog post, some 50,000 patients were treated at Willard hospital during its 126 year existence, more than half of which died there.
The suitcases featured in the display are also the subject of a book by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. From the exerts on the books website, it looks as though the book is primarily concerned with answering a few different questions; 1) Were the people at Willard justly committed? 2) How were the patients at Willard treated? 3) Who really, were these patients and what was there past like before they came to live at Willard?
The book focuses on 10 different patients and their histories through both medical records and suitcase contents.
One theme emerging from the website on this book and this display is that often times when patients were admitted to the hospital, the staff didn’t take the time to get to know anything about the person’s past. This often resulted in the hospital staff believing that the patient was hallucinating their past. Such is the case with one patient, whom the book refers to as “Theresa”. According to the research conducted by the books authors, Theresa had actually spent some of her past life as a nun. When she was admitted to the hospital, the staff seemed to believe that Theresa was hallucinating her religious past. This complete ignorance of a patient’s past seems to be the root cause for a lot of mistreatment which went on at Willard.
Sometimes it’s annoying to me how much time therapists spend delving into someone’s past. I posted a while back on “The Crutch of Why: How fixating on the source of mental illness can delay treatment”, which was essentially about how a patient can become preoccupied with their past and not focus enough on how to move forward. However, I can definitely see that having some insight on a person’s past can be useful for treatment especially after reading about Willard, in which case the staff had very little, if any information about a person’s past.