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Letter: Invest in mental health care, not restoring horrific facility

Invest in mental health care, not restoring horrific facility

It was a month before I was to receive my M.D. degree, spring 1973. The last required rotation for our group was psychiatry and we were assigned to Buffalo State Hospital, specifically the “med-surg” building. The attending physicians gave us piles of charts on current patients and told us to go through them. They went back 10, 20, sometimes over 30 years and chronicled supposed symptoms of mental illness that ended up in long-term confinement to this facility.

We found patients who initially didn’t have mental illness. They had thyroid disease, seizure disorders or other general medical problems. By the time their diagnoses were corrected, most had been subjected to prolonged use of toxic medications and even some lobotomies (brain surgery intended to treat mental illness and aggression).

One day we were taken on a tour of the Richardson Towers. There were still patients confined there. As we walked through the halls, looking at windowless rooms, floor drains, fire hoses wrapped outside the doors, padded walls and bars on the locked door windows, a patient escaped her room and ran to us, open hospital gown flapping behind, grabbed the thumb of one of my classmates and the white-jacketed aides pulled her away and presumably put her back in her cell. This was 1973, not 1880.

The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane was a prime example of the dark ages of medicine and care of the mentally ill. The buildings were built to hide the mentally ill behind an impressive architectural facade and grounds. People were institutionalized for life simply upon the request of family members. Treatment options are somewhat better now and there are laws in place to try to prevent long-term commitments, but we still have a long way to go. Instead of improving mental health care, we are spending money to restore a horrific facility, making it into a boutique hotel and conference center. Restoring one patient room just doesn’t do justice to the people who lived and died there, out of sight of the rest of humanity.

Sharon Kuritzky, M.D.