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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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Page 69:


But in a hospital which has that modern improvement known as an associate dining-hall, such abuses as I have described cannot affect a majority of the patients. The State Hospital in which I was confined, now has as good a dining-hall of this type as any in the country; and its outlying groups of buildings have smaller ones. This associate or "congregate" dining-hall was first used about three months before I was discharged; consequently I am in a position to contrast its advantages with the shortcomings of the ward dining-rooms. The associate hall in question had a seating capacity of twelve hundred. This fact in itself is perhaps surprising, for most people picture an asylum for the insane as a place of great disorder, if not riot. Yet day after day, twelve hundred insane men and women here gather and partake of the indifferent, though wholesome and life-sustaining, food provided by the State. And this, too, with relatively less disorder than will be found among an equal number of undergraduates at any of our great universities where similar dining-halls are in operation.


In an associate dining-room, under the eyes of one or more of the assistant physicians, the solicitous consideration for his charges on the part of the brutal type of attendant is positively refreshing, even if inspired by the motive of self-interest. Aside from the personal safety of the patient which thus results, there are many other advantages. The patient is sure to get a sufficient amount of food and an ample allowance of time in which to eat it. Usually an hour is allowed for each meal -- that time including the walking to and from the dining-hall. In this way the inmates are able to while away three hours of the long day. At noon and night an orchestra enlivens the meal. That this music has much to do with the good order that obtains is an admitted fact, for it has been proved that music is an excellent medicine for the mentally disturbed. It is to be regretted that the associate dining-hall does not utterly eliminate the abuses which exist in so many wards. Unfortunately only those able to take some care of themselves are permitted to enjoy its advantages. Those most in need of protection are still left to the uncertain ministrations of unwatched attendants.




WORSE than the negligent treatment of the body is a vexatious treatment of the mind itself. I have already made it dear that unjustifiable interference with the mail-matter of the patient is a common practice. This may be aptly designated as the major petty abuse of that multitude of petty abuses which help to make the lot of the insane so hard.


Next to the instinctive desire for freedom, which naturally inspires almost every inmate of an asylum, perhaps the commonest desire is to be allowed to write and receive letters as he had been accustomed to do before his commitment. This gives rise to the universal bone of contention on which doctors and patients chew -- yes, and over which they growl and snarl. Every day in the year, year in and year out, in the majority of such institutions, this battle is waged. The patients chafe under censorship, let alone confiscation.


In the main they are right. It is without question unjust, as it is, indeed, illegal, that a patient should be denied the privilege of communicating, almost at will, with at least his legally appointed conservator. Yet doctors of the despot type do censor and frequently destroy letters, -- except in those rare instances when a patient writes a string of silly nothings, or speaks in complimentary terms of the institution and its management. But missives of the latter sort are naturally rare -- and will continue to be so until the several managements begin to inspire encomiums by deserving them. The elimination of this one abuse would go far to eliminate others which grow out of it. On the other hand, when the physical and allied abuses shall have been done away with, there will be less temptation to interfere with patients' correspondence; for, the moment patients are universally treated with consideration they will be pretty likely to declare that fact in their letters. Then, not only will the doctors in authority not censor and wantonly destroy these letters -- they will exert themselves to keep patients in close and honest touch with their relatives and friends.


I, perhaps, feel more strongly on this subject than on almost any other. I know what it is to be kept in an exile so complete that I could not send a message of any sort to my legally appointed conservator -- my own brother; and that, too, at a time when I greatly desired to ask him for assistance in my fight against abuse and positive danger. This situation occurred first at the private hospital where I was strait-jacketed for three weeks. Within a month of its first occurrence it occurred again at the State Hospital. Indeed, so long as I wrote letters at these two institutions, except for a short initial period at each, I never felt sure that my letters were not being held or destroyed by the doctors in authority, -- and with reason. My letters were on several occasions confiscated -- letters, too, which there was no excuse for so treating, except that they contained nothing but the truth. Though many of my letters were finally forwarded to my conservator, in a few conspicuous instances they were destroyed without the knowledge of either my conservator or myself. I have already described how an assistant physician arbitrarily denied my request that I be permitted to send a birthday letter to my father, thereby not merely exceeding his authority and ignoring decency, but, consciously or unconsciously, stifling a sane impulse. That this should occur while I was confined in the Bull Pen was not so surprising. But, about four months later, while I was an inmate of one of the best wards, a similar though less open interference occurred. At this time I was so nearly normal that my discharge was but a question of a few months. Anticipating my return to my old world I decided to begin the re-establishment of old relations. Accordingly, my brother, at my suggestion, informed certain friends that I should be pleased to receive letters from them. They soon wrote. In the meantime the doctor had been instructed to deliver to me any and all letters that might arrive. He did so for a time, and that without censoring. As was to be expected, after nearly three practically letterless years, I found rare delight in replying to my re-awakened correspondents. Yet some of these letters, written for the deliberate purpose of re-establishing myself in the sane world, were destroyed by the doctor in authority. At the time, not one word did he say to me about the matter. I had handed him for mailing certain letters, unsealed. He did not mail them, nor did he forward them to my conservator as he should have done, and had earlier agreed to do with all letters which he could not see his way clear to approve. It was fully a month before I learned that my friends had not received my replies to their letters. Then I accused the doctor of destroying them, and he, with belated frankness, admitted that he had done so. He offered no better excuse for his action than the mere statement that he did not approve of the sentiments I had expressed. Another flagrant and typical instance of such interference was that of a letter addressed to me in reply to one which I had mailed surreptitiously. The person to whom I wrote, a friend of years' standing, later informed me that he had sent the reply. I never received it. Neither did my conservator. Were it not that I feel absolutely sure that the letter in question was received at the hospital and destroyed, I should not now raise this point.

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