Well Being

Long Abandoned Suitcases From A State Mental Institution

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“To take away the stigma is to take away the fear.” – Nancy Devine.

Have any of you heard of the old Willard Psychiatric Center in New York? Until it closed in 1995, it went through several names, ultimately sticking with the Willard Psychiatric Center.

Anyway, once Willard was closed in 1995, hundreds of “abandoned” suitcases were found in the attic of one of the center's buildings. These suitcases belonged to patients at Willard. Of course, the majority – if not all – of the suitcases were taken to and forgotten in the attic because the owners – the patients – died while at Willard.

After going through the suitcases, the workers gained insight about the actual people at Willard. Not the patients. Not the insane. Not the folks who eventually perished in a psychiatric hospital. The people, and their lives before Willard. I would have given my left pinkie toe to have been there! To have been able to wander through and get lost in the lives of those who were long gone, especially given the way in which their last years on earth were spent.

This fascinates the hell out of me. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would occasionally get wild hairs up our tails and sneak into the abandoned home of a man named Alfred Poochie, aka Old Man Poochie, to us. Anyway, this man was fascinating – dead, but fascinating. After we risked our necks (and arms and legs) crossing the rickety walking bridge over the water underneath, we'd get lost in the house. Old pianos, organs, letters, books, pictures, records, clothes – everything! (I don't know why none of it was ever retrieved). Studying this man's life using only the material possessions he left behind was awe-inspiring. Definitely one of the more educational illegal things we did those summers.

Anyway, as you can tell, I get hypnotized with this kind of stuff. Fortunately you can view the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online, or catch the physical traveling version of it. (Oh! How lucky that would be!)

The online version is – fortunately – pretty in depth about the goings-on at Willard throughout the years and includes interviews from former employees.

The suitcase exhibit includes the suitcases of nine psychiatric patients at Willard and their stories. You'll be shocked when you read the reasons some of the folks were admitted to Willard (issues we'd now straighten out on our own with a good therapist and maybe a prescription). And you'll shiver when you read that the same reasons kept the majority of the patients locked up at Willard until they died.

We're talking 20, 30, and 40 years here, people.

Some of you may be thinking this is disrespectful; an invasion of privacy. Well, it's not.

The suitcases – and lives – that were chosen to be put on display help to further advocate the fact that mentally ill people have lives. They're real people, with real belongings, friends, families, interests, dreams, goals, etc. When patients died at Willard, they were buried in the nearby grounds' graveyard, with nothing more than an unmarked piece of iron to let the gravedigger know where he could, and could not, bury the next body.

With nothing more than a piece of iron to mark their final resting places, don't you think these patients – and their families and friends – would appreciate a bit more insight as to who they really were?

I think so.

The exhibit helps show just how far mental health treatment has come in America, and it helps take away the stigma. We can no longer be committed by employers, landlords, restaurant owners, or spouses from whom we've filed divorce – as you'll find was often the case back then.

I strongly urge you to set aside an hour or so to view the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online, along with all the information about people in general who were admitted and why, what kind of “mental health treatment” they received, and how they responded to the state mental institution.

It's fascinating stuff, I promise.

Image: Newscom