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  Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

At first glance, no one with sensitivity to mental health issues would be caught dead using the words "lunatic asylum."  Simply the thought of such a label conjures up thoughts of ghastly treatment and terrifying stigma.  The thought of someone using that name as an identifying label for a building in today's era of political correctness is nearly unthinkable.

My original connection to the Trans-Allegheny site was from someone who knew me as a mental health advocate and who had spearheaded a campaign to fight the use of the name "Hayden Island Institute for the Criminally Insane" for a haunted house during Halloween in 2007.  The person suggested to me that "Here we go again with someone promoting stigma to persecute people with mental illness."

Wanting to know the reality, I went to the web site and started to research what the web pages revealed.  True to form, if I wanted to find offensive labels, they were there.  Lunatic, insane, crazy.  But I also found something else.  Honest to goodness civic responsibility and a sense of community.  To quote from their web site

 "Through the years, The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (formerly the Weston State Hospital) has been a social and economic contributor to the local community."

What I did not expect to find was an honest and sincere appreciation for the plight of those who had resided in the institution which was in no way present at the Halloween haunted houses that I had protested.  What I did not expect to find was discussions of Dorthea Dix and Thomas Kirkbride as leaders of the movement to view mental illness as a condition other than a moral sin or criminal condition.

What I got back from my inquiry was an honest and direct response of their goals for preserving this landmark which, like it or not, is a part of our history.

Rebecca Jordan wrote "I really appreciate your email. We are desperately trying to show the truth, both good and bad about this facility and mental health.
Our tours have been complimented by dozens of mental health professionals that have taken the time to actually visit the facility and see the strides we are making.
During our tour we speak of the great "idea" that was behind the creation of the asylum (a place of refuge) and those that assisted with getting people out of prisons and poor houses. We also speak on warehousing of the patients, treatments, and some of the horrors of the facility. We also discuss how the building itself helped get the entire community through 2 wars and the depression era.
I would like to invite you to visit with your family when you can, I promise you'll walk away with a greater understanding of us and our efforts to help the area through promotion of a historically accurate tour."

This hardly seems like the kind of person who desires to make light of the plight of those with mental illness.  While many people will object to the use of the wording and some practices of the organization, perhaps a better path to take is to understand the goals of the organization and help them understand the perspective of advocates and family members.  To that end, Rebecca has agreed to link to this web site and also work with me to learn more about appropriate materials that can be presented to visitors of the facility to tear down stigma surrounding the sad state of treatment of mental illness that still exists throughout the world.

Rebecca and her father have attempted to create a facility in the community that uses its history to teach us lessons about the past while it struggles to find an economic model that will support its existence.  Can anyone guess the interest and financial support that would be created by calling it the Weston Mental Health Museum?

I have a distaste for the history of mental health treatment and other similarly awful parts of American History.  However, in this case perhaps we have not learned because we have not paid attention to history.  Prior to asylums, people were incarcerated and treated brutally.  Today in America we have closed the asylums and begun repopulating our jails with mentally ill inmates in a process labeled transinstitutionalization.  Perhaps if more had been known about the awful treatment in jails and the effect of closing down asylums, we would have thought about what we as a society needed to do to help those among us who suffer from their conditions.  The theory was to build community treatment programs and reintegrate people into normal society, but we simply moved the most ill from asylums into jails.

All of this happened while new medications and treatments were being developed to help those who suffered from illness.

The use of the label of lunatic asylum is unfortunate, even if it is historically accurate.  However, if it bothers me enough to work with Rebecca to create materials for people who come to see the asylum and create a better understanding of mental health matters, I will join that effort.

At the same time we look at the past and discuss treatment options, we must also be aware of the limitations of our knowledge of the disorders that we hope to treat.  That discussion continues.  What is not really in question is the inadequate knowledge and lack of compassion that societies around the world have shown in their efforts to deal with the problem.  That pioneers sought to treat people is admirable.  That far too often they treated those in their care as less than human is not admirable.  Reminding us of what is left to be done in finding better treatment options can help move us forward toward a better future.

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Last modified: 06/19/08