"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

- United States Declaration of Independence

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Massachusetts has long been considered a global leader for medical research, treatment, hospitals, and innovation. For medical care, the reputation is deserved: Beth Israel-Deaconess, Mass. General Hospital, Childrens’ Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Center and the Joslin Diabetes Clinic, among others, are world-renowned. However, the State’s progressive reputation still hasn’t caught up with the hard realities its consumer/survivors face.

In 1833, Worcester State Hospital, the first State Hospital in the United States, was opened. In 1841, Dorothea Dix, considered by many to be the first mental health advocate, discovered and campaigned against cruel and inhumane facilities near Boston. She actively lobbied State Legislatures and the U.S. Congress for the construction and expansion of public hospitals, the first of which was Worcester State. Early on, some such hospitals were based on Quaker ideals of “Moral Treatment” – i.e., asylums meant to be restful and humane places where patients were treated with respect and ample access to fresh air and nature. But despite the lofty goals and good intentions of the concept of “Moral Treatment” fell out of favor, and asylums became notorious “snake pits”.

In 1966, the shocking documentary film “Titicut Follies” exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital. But still, forty years later, the situation for survivors in the criminal justice system here is quite grim.

During the 1970s, and 80s, Massachusetts was home to some of the most well-known mental health activists, including Judi Chamberlin, Dan Fisher, and others. The Mental Patients’ Liberation Front (MPLF) was an early, outspoken activist group, which established the famed Ruby Rogers Drop-in Center in Somerville. A court ruling named for Rogers established the right to refuse treatment.

In 1977, the court ruling Brewster vs. Dukakis (also known as the Brewster Consent Decree) was one of the major steps in what is known now as deinstitutionalization, resulting in major discharges at Northampton State Hospital.

Many of the country’s most celebrated literary figures have written about their experiences in the Massachusetts mental health system, especially at psychiatric hospitals, including: Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrputed); Lauren Slater (Welcome to my Country and Prozac Diary); Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors). Authors Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton spent time at McLean Hospital, as did musicians James Taylor and Ray Charles.

And to this day, many top names in mental health advocacy are based in Massachusetts, including Dr. Fisher, Pat Deegan and Robert Whitaker.