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From Locked Doors to Liberty: Evolution of Mental Health Treatment

An award-winning documentary explores life inside — and outside — a harsh psychiatric hospital

lucy winer
Credit: Jason D. Brown
Filmmaker Lucy Winer outside Kings Park State Hospital where she was a patient in the late 1960s

Lucy Winer was just 17 when a white-clad attendant led her through a series of locked doors and left her in the dayroom of Building 21, Ward 210 – the “Female Violent Ward” – at Long Island’s Kings Park State Hospital, in 1975.

Despite the name, powerful sedatives had dulled the patients’ senses and dozens of women dozed on the floor or shuffled about mumbling to themselves, Winer recalls in an Emmy-nominated documentary she made about the experience. When a visitor tossed a handful of cookies on the floor, the women dove for the pieces like pigeons in a park.

“This was treatment as usual. This is what people knew,” explained Jody Silver, executive director for Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey, a peer-led mental health organization. “And Kings Park is every state hospital.”

Care for those with mental illness has come a long way in the decades since, as public policy has shifted from locking patients in hospitals to helping them live and participate in the community. This evolution will be the focus of a public forum on Friday, November 4 at the Raritan Bay Area YMCA in Perth Amboy.

The event, which requires advance registration, starts with the documentary “Kings Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution.” That will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and a panel discussion exploring the past, present, and future of behavioral healthcare. The movie made its Garden State debut last fall, in South Jersey.

“In New Jersey, we’ve made some reasonable progress,” said Bill Waldman, a former state Human Services Commissioner who presided over the closure of multiple state facilities and is now chairman of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. “But there’s still very little new money for psychiatric care.”

Driven by court rulings that encourage deinstitutionalization and a growing awareness of mental illness, the vast majority of Garden State patients receiving state-sponsored care live in group homes or other community settings and receive treatment from healthcare facilities or local non-profit providers.

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, in Morris Plains — which was massively downsized in recent years — once housed nearly 10,000 people, Waldman said, while today fewer than 1,600 people live in all four remaining state psychiatric hospitals.

Initial public resistance to hospital closures was “enormous,” Waldman recalled. Neighbors feared for their safety, union members opposed the loss of jobs, he said, and it took time for the state to develop a system that balances community and patient needs. “We have learned what it takes to do it right,” said Waldman, who is also a professor at Rutgers School of Social Work.

Most patients have benefitted significantly from greater independence and community engagement, but leaving institutional life can be complicated, Winer found in making the film. Despite the barbaric conditions at Kings Park — where treatments included heavy medications, shock therapy and even lobotomies — some patients and staff recalled a sense of safety and normalcy there that has made it hard for them to readjust to life outside the walls. “We as patients were not the only people traumatized,” Winer recalls in the film.

This evolution is still a work in progress. Nonprofit providers complain that a lack of funding has left them scrambling to pay for proper care; issues with transportation services have left some patients in the lurch; and hospitals have found that a growing number of people with serious mental illness end up in the emergency room. Others wind up in prison, where little real help is available.

Winer, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic a few years before she was committed to Kings Park twice, for a total of almost six months, said the film started with a “very personal” intention: “I needed to come to terms with what I went through as a teenager.”

But this sparked an obsession with the facility itself and the impact it had on the community, Winer explained. The general public knows little about what goes on behind the walls of a place like Kings Park, she said, and the history of these sites is disappearing. “I wanted to understand the hospital itself. The film became about something way bigger than me … When you tell the story of one state hospital, you’re really telling the story of all state hospitals.”

Sharing Kings Park with the public enables others to better understand and learn from this history, explained Silver, who worked with CSPNJ to bring the documentary to the Garden State. “Everyone knows someone who’s been touched by mental illness,” she said. Data show that one in five people experience serious depression or other mental health issues at least once a year.

In addition to CSPNJ, the Perth Amboy forum is sponsored MHANJ, the Rutgers Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions, the Rutgers School of Social Work, and Arts Unbound, a nonprofit that runs arts programs for individuals with disabilities.

To register or learn more, contact Christina Serrano at cserrano@cspnj.org or 732-677-1695.

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