'Kings Park': Old Mental Asylums Shed Light on Newtown Crisis

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Man Sent to Mental Hospital as a Child

Ron Jackson, a runaway foster child placed in the ward in the 1940s for "disturbed young adults," says in the film that he was hung from a high window in a straight jacket where he swung back and forth for hours.

He can't remember exactly how old he was when he arrived at Kings Park -- "I was seven or eight years, nine years? I really don't know exactly. But I know when I came here I was very young. I must have weighed about 60 pounds," he told Winer.

Jackson had never been taught to read or write or use a telephone, so when he was released at 17 without any skills, he got into minor trouble and landed briefly in jail. Later, he grew up to be a successful sanitation worker.

It was not easy on those who worked there either, according to the film. Staff psychiatrist Dr. Hannelore Lehnhoff, who worked at Kings Park from 1960 to 1985, but has since died, reported a dangerous practice that was used to restrain patients and when she spoke up, she was reasigned to another area of the hospital.

Staff would place a wet washcloth over the face of a "disturbed" patient, says Lehnhoff, causing them to lose consciousness so they could be put in restraints. One died of suffocation.

"The staff was also oppressed by the system," said Winer. "Everyone just tried to survive."

Institutions such as Kings Park emerged in the 19th century when society struggled with what to do with the mentally ill.

"Basically, there was no place for you," said Gerald Grob, author of the 1994 book, "The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America's Mentally Ill," and professor emeritus at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"Oftentimes, the family couldn't cope," he said. "It was very disruptive -- so they moved toward institutional care with the assumption that a hospital could break with the environment that caused the illness."

Though characterized as "evil places," at the time hospitals provided a range of therapies and did "many good things," according to Grob, the least of which was to offer food, clothing and shelter.

Attitudes changed after World War II. Doctors began to notice that soldiers exposed to continual combat suffered from neuropsychiatric symptoms. But if they were taken off the battlefield to wash up, eat and sleep for several days, they could recover and go back to fight.

"From that came the notion that in treating people with mental illness, it might be good to do it in the community, rather than in a hospital," he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, patients were being let out of the hospitals in the hopes they could reintegrate and at the same time, newer psychotropic drugs were being developed to help them. Institutional populations were sharply declining, according to Grob.

"The argument was that people were better off outside," he said.

By 1965, when Congress introduced Medicare and Medicaid, about half of all mental hospital patients left were the elderly, according to Grob. "Before, the state was responsible for their total support, but with the creation of nursing homes and chronic care facilities, instead, the state sent them there, and federal government paid the bill."

With the advent of Social Security Insurance (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), federally subsidized Section 8 housing, there were now federal resources to help an individual make an independent life.

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