Depression Marathon Blog

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Diagnosed with depression 17 years ago, I lost the life I once knew, but in the process re-created a better me. I am alive and functional today because of my dog, my treatment team, my sobriety, and my willingness to re-create myself within the confines of this illness. I hate the illness, but I'm grateful for the person I've become and the opportunities I've seized because of it. I hope writing a depression blog will reduce stigma and improve the understanding and treatment of people with mental illness. All original content copyright to me: etta. Enjoy your visit!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lunatic Asylum--offensive?

This is a tough one. Today, I read a NAMI Stigmabuster Alert about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, Virginia.

Last summer, Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor, bought the Weston Hospital in West Virginia, which is registered as a national historic landmark.
He has renamed it the "Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum," which was its name in another era. Constructed in 1864 as a psychiatric hospital, it housed more than 2,000 patients at its peak. It was closed in 1994.
The Associated Press (AP) has reported that Jordan is trying to revive the property by offering tours and other "attractions." The planned attractions include a "Hospital of Horrors" at Halloween season, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" tour, as well as "Psycho Path" dirt bike races on the 307 acre complex.
StigmaBusters are outraged that the stigmatizing name has been resurrected and that the hospital, where many people once suffered, will be used as the setting for entertainment, featuring violent stereotypes and disparaging language.

Like many of you may be right now, I was initially outraged! However, after spending the last hour looking over the old hospital's website, my outrage has mellowed from a boil to a simmer. The situation is a bit more complex than it initially appears.

This building is quite historic and apparently was a centerpiece of the community for most of its 130 years. I am a big fan of historic buildings, and this one looks beautiful! It is a gigantic, stone hospital. Like so many others around the nation, it was closed in the 1990's and has since fallen into disrepair due to the huge expense required to maintain it. It was on the demolition block when it was purchased at auction by Mr. Jordan.
The website appears to positively focus on the history of the hospital, it's architecture, and it's economic impact on the local community over its 130-year lifespan. Some of the tour guests have commented on the site that the tour was done respectfully and actually highlighted the suffering of the mentally ill patients. I don't even have a problem with them resurrecting the old, stigma-laden, stereotypical name as long as it is historically accurate and done in the name of preservation.
The problem is, with scheduled fundraising activities including 20 hours of "Hospital of Horrors" tours before Halloween and something called the "Nightmare Before Christmas" on December 23rd, determining whether or not the name change is purely preservation-driven is difficult. (Note: It's also been reported that the upcoming truck races scheduled on the hospital grounds were to be called the "psycho path" races, but the hospital web site only refers to them as the "Mud Bog" races.)

So there are more complexities here than it appears at first blush. Many of the comments on the website are either totally supportive of Mr. Jordan, and unfortunately dismissive of the concerns of the mental health community, or they contemptuously blast Mr. Jordan's "ignorance" and dismiss any potential positive impact of his undertaking. I think the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Preserving a beautiful, historic building is laudable, maybe even altruistic, especially when that building has been instrumental to the community's economic survival. Mr. Jordan has an opportunity to use a unique and spectacular platform to attract and educate people about the history and reality of mental illness. Imagine how powerful that tour could be if it incorporated personal statements from the doctors, nurses, patients and family members associated with the institution. (Have you ever been to Alcatraz or Ellis Island? Aren't those audio tours more educational and memorable because they include the actual experiences and voices of the guards, prisoners, and immigrants who were there?) Heck, what a great opportunity for Mr. Jordan to employ some people with mental illness as tour guides. There's no better way to change people's ideas about a stigmatized, stereotyped group than to have them come face-to-face with each other. I'd volunteer to give tours if I lived anywhere near the place! The opportunity for enlightenment is great.
Unfortunately, it appears the financial stresses of such a massive undertaking and/or Mr. Jordan's lack of knowledge or concern for the mentally ill have led to poor fundraising choices. It is unfortunate and maddening that he and his supporters cannot comprehend why holding a "Hospital of Horrors" tour in a mental health hospital is offensive. I can't comprehend why they can't comprehend that! That's frightening. Let's hold it at a cancer hospital where guests can stick their fingers into darkened containers of real tumors and experience the side effects of chemotherapy firsthand. How about having the horror tour at a rehab hospital for spinal cord and brain injury where guests could be temporarily paralyzed, blinded, or rendered mute and then asked to negotiate a staircase, busy street corner, or answer the telephone. Ha! Ha! Ha! What a hoot! Oh, does that sound outrageous, insensitive? Exactly.
Think about it. Nightmare Before Christmas? Hospital of Horrors? Those titles would not work at the cancer institute or the rehab center. If they weren't based on stigma and stereotypes, those titles wouldn't work at all. They only work in a former mental institution because they are based on the stereotype that mentally ill people are violent, murderous, and scary. It is a powerful, pervasive stereotype, and that stigma is what makes these ill-conceived tours and programs appealing and profitable.
So I commend you, Mr. Jordan, for standing up and using your own funds to save an important, historically significant building. But I also urge you, Mr. Jordan, to use your creative mind to develop alternative methods to raise funds for your undertaking. Hold a dance or a costume party. How about inviting locals to use your grounds for proms, weddings, family reunions, or flea markets. Are you requesting outside assistance? Perhaps you could set up your website to accept donations. Please, Mr. Jordan, out of compassion for those of us living with mental illness, and certainly out of respect for those spirits with whom you now mingle, please reconsider your fundraising decisions. I look forward to visiting your beautiful site soon.


Anonymous said...

Hi Etta,

You and I seem to come at this sort of thing from different angles. From "Hospital of Horrors" I infer an educational component, perhaps illustrating how far (certainly not far enough) the medical profession, and in theory, society at large, has come in treating the mentally ill more compassionately and effectively.

That Jordan is apparently ultra successful at asbestos abatement tells me that first and foremost he's a hardcore businessman. Whatever else his motivation, he almost certainly appreciates that if the endeavor doesn't make money, it's going to be short-lived.

That was my initial take on the excerpt you provided.

As always, I'm glad you're looking out for us.

etta said...

Interesting take on it. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Etta,

I, too, suffer with chronic major depression (with suicidal ideation), as well as social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, conversion disorder, anorexia and seasonal affective disorder. I was sickened to learn about what Mr. Jordan plans to do with the former asylum. This is the letter I sent to him:
Dear Mr. Jordan,

Congratulations on your recent purchase of the "lunatic asylum." I'm sure the 20-some-odd million people in the United States who suffer from one of so many kinds of brain disorders will be pleased to hear of your plans to turn the former Weston psychiatric hospital into a fun-filled place to make fun of the mentally ill.

Clearly, no one close to you suffers from such brain disorders as chronic clinical depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder or even panic or anxiety disorders. I'm glad for you. But I wonder if you know that about one in four or five people does suffer from one or more of such disorders or diseases every day in America. That means a friend of yours, a relative, a co-worker, a poker buddy, a drinking buddy could be one of those four or five who do suffer from mental illness. Perhaps no one has told you of their suffering because they are aware of your obvious disregard for the seriousness of mental health disorders. Or, maybe they're afraid you're one of those people who would say something to the effect of "What a load of crap. Just get over yourself." Maybe they're afraid you'd just make fun of them, or use their experience as a template for your new fun house, thus perpetuating the stigma of mental illness.

Obviously, you haven't heard that the U.S. Surgeon General has denounced stigma, including inaccurate, violent stereotypes, like the ones you plan to exploit in your new evil Disneyland. The U.S. Surgeon General also has denounced the trivialization of mental illness, as contributing to barriers that discourages people from getting help when they need it.

"Lunatic" is an obsolete, stigmatizing, offensive term—just like racial and ethnic slurs that once were used in the past. "Pyscho" also is insulting and further perpetuates stigma, along with themes like "Halloween of Horrors." Entertainment attractions are inappropriate for historic buildings of this nature.

But, I imagine you couldn't care less about the harm you might do with your new toy, as long as you make a buck or two doing it. So again, my congratulations on your purchase. It takes people like you to remind the rest of the country how serious mental illness can be, how people like you make people who suffer from mental illness wish that this time, their suicide attempt will be successful.

Most sincerely,
Karri E. Christiansen

etta said...

Dear Karri-

Thank you for contributing to this discussion. I can feel your anger and pain. As I stated in my post, my knee-jerk reaction was equally as disgusted. As you can read in earlier posts on this blog, I have been subject to incredible discrimination and stigma as a result of my illness. However, after reviewing Mr. Jordan's site, and as I continue to monitor his guests' comments, it appears that he may not deserve all of the vindictiveness we initially wished to aim at him.
The guest comments, from people who have actually taken the tour, have been consistently laudatory of the tour's respectful tone. I find that very encouraging, and I am grateful for it.
Mr. Jordan has an incredible opportunity to educate the public and reduce stigma by renovating and displaying this facility. We can always hope he does more, but the fact that he is doing anything at all is a start.
As I stated in my post, I agree his choices for fundraising are ill-conceived and misguided. I do not personally know the man, so I am hopeful this is a mistake made out of lack of awareness rather than outright cruelty. If he has not been touched by mental illness, he would not know how painful the names of his events, and the events themselves would be to those of us in the trenches.
It is my hope, then, that we can use this as another opportunity to reach out and educate. Too often, the feelings on both sides run so high that only yelling and name-calling can be heard above a more rational din. I would like to recognize Mr Jordan for the positive work he has apparently already done by instructing his guides to provide educational and respectful tours. I would also like to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding some of his other choices, unless I learn otherwise.
I don't think this is an all good or all bad situation. Sometimes I, as a complaintant, need to see the big picture and have some understanding and compassion, too. If both sides are able to approach their concerns with some compassion and understanding, the outcome may be the best for all concerned.
I am planning to make a trip out there to see the site because I am interested, and because the feedback from the tours gives me hope that it will be a positive, affirming experience. I hope Mr. Jordan is around that day. I would like to say hello. And I do hope he reconsiders the offensive fundraising activities to which you and I both referred.
Thanks again for your comment.