Lo, I did write thee a splendid piece on my visit to the National Building Museum exhibit on Washington, DC’s great Asylum hospital, St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe). But ay I did it waiting for a surgery to close, needing something to do something with my nervous energy. The patient, when asked the standard pre-surgical question “Why are you here with us today?” (assesses orientation, assures that the patient is informed, confirms procedure), answered “I am dying.” Always believe the patient who says they are dying.
Crash cart at my side, fellow nurse and I finished planning our I-hope-this-doesn’t-turn-into-a-code, I typed out a gem. And upon finishing, ran off to do a thing and lost it.
Instead, here is an excerpt of a letter written by Dr. Charles Nichols, superintendent, to Dorthea Dix (nurse, hero) the greatest advocate for mental health that ever lived whose actions led to the establishment of the hospital, on the selection of a site.
The moral treatment of the insane, with reference to their cure, consists mainly in eliciting an exercise of the attention with things rational, agreeable, and foreign to the subject of delusion; and the more constant and absorbing is such exercise, the more rapid and effectual will be the recovery; but many unbroken hours must elapse each day, during which it is on every account impracticable to make any direct active effort to engage and occupy the patients’ minds. Now, nothing gratifies the taste, and spontaneously enlists the attention, of so large a class of persons, as combinations of beautiful natural scenery, varied and enriched by the hand of man; and it may be asserted with much confidence, that the expenditure of a thousand dollars each year, directed to the single object of promoting the healthy mental occupation of one hundred insane persons, with either amusements or labor, would not be so effectual in recalling reason to its throne, as will the grand panorama of nature and of art, which the peculiar position of the site chosen happily commands. The shifting incidents of the navigation of the Potomac, the flight of railroad cars to and from the city, the operations at the Navy Yard, &c., will continually renew and vary the interest of the scene.
It lifts my iron anchor of a heart to read about this period in time, the asylum movement. Started by Quakers and somehow collecting political support for the mission to create a place, tranquil and serene, to house and heal vulnerable, imprisoned, and cast away persons suffering from mental illness. Public funding! Our government and the people it represents setting aside money to better provide for its poorliest members. Acknowledgement that all people have dignity and value.
**I know you’re thinking asylum? You mean those places where people are locked up and tortured and experimented on? Yes, terrible. But I’ll refer you to the many, many atrocities committed against those walking free: people of color, indigent people seeking care at public hospitals. Medical ethics has an awful lot to answer for. It’s my speculation that we pin it all so easily on asylums, place all our unquiet ghosts there, because of the fear and stigma bound to mental illness. Chew on that. I digress.
Asylums were conceived in goodness. Every pure-hearted reformer may know exactly where the road paved with their good intentions will end up, but I’m glad that they’re trying. We keep trying. We should always be trying.
PS- As Dr. Nichols states, I’m in favor of doing anything that “recalls reason to it’s throne.” Especially in this nuthouse town.