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

Condemned as evil, mental hospitals closed, leading to fragmented system.

ByABC News
December 19, 2012, 2:34 PM

Dec. 20, 2012— -- It took filmmaker Lucy Winer several decades to come to terms with having been locked up in a mental institution in 1967 after several hospitalizations for suicide attempts.

Between the ages of 17 and 19, Winer was committed to Kings Park State Hospital, in Kings Park, N.Y. -- today a long-abandoned campus on Long Island -- which at its height warehoused more than 9,000 patients in towering brick buildings.

Like many other depressed patients at the time, she was given an amorphous diagnosis: chronic differentiated schizophrenia, a condition psychiatrists thought was caused by bad parenting or psychic conflict and was considered untreatable.

"I was placed in the violent ward, for starters," said Winer, who buried her memories until she neared 50. "All my possessions were taken from me.… I was highly medicated. There was no place to sit, maybe five or six chairs, so we all slept on the floor all day."

She showered once a week in a group stall and lined up naked with others to wash at a row of sinks. There were no activities and no television.

"It was neglect and neglect is abuse," said Winer. "We were not considered to be human -- that's an experience you never forget."

In her 2011 film, "Kings Park," director Winer portrays the dark side of mental health care before most of the nation's state hospitals were shuttered down one by one over several decades to provide more humane care for the mentally ill within the community.

But, as her documentary reveals, that never happened. New medications allowed patients to be more independent and federal programs stepped in to help, but states never fully funded community-based care.

The failure of states to implement integrated programs for the mentally ill is still playing out today in a national conversation on mental health care after the death of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

CLICK HERE for full coverage of the tragedy at Sandy Hook.

In the last 60 years, the number of patients in state mental hospitals decreased from 600,000 to less than 60,000, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

But today care for the mentally ill is largely fragmented and poorly funded. Many with serious conditions fight to get access to services as others are homeless or warehoused in the prison system.

And the stigma persists, according to Winer.

"The secondary tragedy is that it takes a tragedy of this proportion to wake us up and see how inadequate our system is," said Winer.

An estimated 45.9 million adults in the United States age 18 or older were diagnosed with a mental illness in 2010, but more than 11 million of those adults say their needs for care were not being met, according to the Alliance for Health Reform, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises Congress and the media.

Those who are mentally ill "pay a huge price," according to Winer. "They lose their jobs, insurance, their friends, associates. People stay silent and don't seek treatment."

The film, which premiered at the Woodstock International Film Festival in 2011, has been screened by numerous mental health organizations. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Association of Social Workers featured the film at their annual conferences this year. Several Washington policymakers have also viewed the film, according to Winer.

It is also being shown in limited general release around the country.

Winer, now 62 -- whose previous films include "Positive: Life With HIV" and "Silent Pioneers," about lesbian and gay seniors -- said her motives for making "Kings Park" were at first "personal," to share her own experience. But after interviewing numerous former patients and doctors, including her own psychiatrist, she became an advocate for others.

What she found was that many of their experiences at Kings Park had been even worse than her own.

She heard stories of patients running around the ward naked, covered in feces. Others were tied down for months at a time.