Across the United States, the graves of tens of thousands of people who
once lived in state mental hospitals lie almost forgotten.
In Oregon, 5,000 copper urns hold the cremated remains of patients who died
at Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Perhaps 25,000 patients lie buried at the
former Georgia State Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville, their graves indicated
only by small, rusted iron markers. Groundskeepers in the 1960s uprooted even
those tokens to make mowing the lawn easier.
"No names, just numbers," recalled a former hospital employee."
Unknown humans, shunned when living, deprived of their very names in
Now, even if all those names cannot be retrieved, the long-forgotten
patients will have some remembrance of their existence in the nation's
Hundreds of numbered iron markers once topped the graves of patients who
died at the former Georgia State Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville, Ga. Members
of the Georgia Consumer Council organized the restoration of the cemetery and
replanted the markers.
Credit: Georgia Consumer Council
Advocates, led by Larry Fricks, vice president for peer services at the
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, are planning a national consumer
memorial on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. Fricks
helped restore the Milledgeville cemetery and is spearheading the project on
behalf of the National Association of Consumer/Survivor Administrators.
The memorial will "honor those who were segregated, died, and buried
on the grounds of state hospitals nationwide," said Fricks in an
interview. "Every state probably has a cemetery like
For the moment, Fricks is concentrating on building support among a number
of consumer and professional groups. Mental Health America has established a
tax-exempt account to accept donations, and the University of Georgia School
of Environmental Design has volunteered consulting services.
The leading suggestion for the proposed memorial is a collection of large
rocks, one from each state, with the names of institutions and the numbers
buried at each. A winding path would guide visitors through the rock garden
and back out to the community—a symbolic journey as well as a physical
The garden would reflect therapeutic ideas that first informed the design
of mental hospitals in early 19th-century America. Called "moral
treatment," that model embraced an enlightened medical view of mental
illness, emphasizing recovery and a belief that patients could be treated with
some hope of success, rather than casting them into jails or worse
(Psychiatric News, September 2, 2005).
"This is a new way to honor people and the institutions that served
them, for good or ill," said Steven Baron, L.C.S.W.-C., director of
Washington, D.C.'s Department of Mental Health, which oversees St. Elizabeths."
I'm really excited about this idea and hope we can make it happen.
Anything that draws attention to the role of public psychiatry is a good
As of press time, however, there was no formal agreement with Baron's
department or the city.
Baron, Fricks, and others have even begun thinking about ideas for an
adjacent museum to explain the mixed history of the state hospitals and the
people who spent their lives in them, although such a museum is probably
several more long steps down the road, said Baron.
(The rumored location of the St. Elizabeths' grounds as the new
headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security will not affect the
location of the memorial, said Baron. The federal government owns only the old
West Campus of the hospital, not the East Campus, which belongs to Washington,
The memorial will not only remember the departed, but will also provide
hope for the living, said spokesperson Jim McNulty of the National Alliance on
Mental Illness. "You put your past in a place where you honor it
and—hopefully—learn from it," he said.
More information on the memorial appeared in the September
Psychiatric Services and is posted at<http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/58/9/1236>.
Donations may be sent to Consumer Memorial Fund, c/o Mental Health America,
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor, Alexandria, Va. 22311, or made online