Tuesday, March 31, 2009

St. Dymphna

St. Dymphna watercolor on paper

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of people who have mental health problems, their families and loved ones, and people who are mental health care givers
. She is also the patron saint of people who are the survivors of incest. There is a very special place that came about because of her where people with mental health are treated with the dignity, respect, and opportunity to heal that they deserve. To read more about the village of Gheel, Belgium and St. Dymphna's connection with this special community,
click here:

I was inspired to post about St. Dymphna because I just finished reading The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, with photographs by Lisa Rinzler. It is a truly sobering account of individuals incarcerated in the New York State mental health system sparked by the discovery of hundreds of suitcases filled with peoples personal belongings in an attic at Willard when the giant institution was shut down. The book focuses on the lives of ten suitcase owners whom the authors researched, finding out as much as they could about who they actually were, and their personal histories. One thing I like about this book is that by it's nature it highlights the fact that each human being is valuable, interesting, and important. That for the few things you can discover about a person there is much that is unknowable and will remain a mystery, but never the less exists. It is an important reminder on a planet where so many, many people dwell together, and where we assume so much about each other without really knowing each other or valuing each others existence. Another thing I like about this book are the questions the authors ask about each person, the questions that should have been asked if these people were actually being offered anything theraputic, which they were not. I like that the authors draw the connection between trauma and it's effect on mental health and the importance of addressing the trauma to help people heal, as opposed to assuming that they are simply defective and that there is no connection between life events and our mental state.

St. Dymphna mixed media shrine, collaboration with Marcus Kwame Anderson

Sadly, the authors see a great deal still lacking in what the mental health system and modern psychiatry have to offer people in need. That people are further traumatized by what should, instead, be helping them is scary and sickening and makes me afraid for some people who are very dear to me. There is a need for the benefits of a community like Gheel to be considered and put into practice in the rest of the world so that no one is further victimized by ignorance and prejudice.

There is also an on-line exhibit connected with the book:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Margaret of Castello

Saint Margaret of Castello, patron saint of children with disabilities, shown here as a fairy God-mother protecting and appreciating a small child who was born differently abled.

There is a news item on NPR today about some horrifying abuse occurring at a state institution in Texas:

Morning Edition, March 18, 2009 · At a state institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, six staff members have been charged with taking part in staging what have been called human cockfights, using residents with mental retardation. The accusations have raised questions about how workers trained and hired to care for some of the most vulnerable people in society could instead treat them with cruelty. Read the rest of this article:

My older brother, Wally, was diagnosed with autism when he was around 2 years old. The doctor recommended that my parents place him in an institution where he could get "professional" help, and focus their attention on my sister and I- the two "normal" children. This was in the late sixties, and a lot of parents were still choosing to institutionalize their children who had disabilities. My mom and dad decided that Wally would remain at home, and so he has until this very day. Even so I was exposed to the horrors of institutions at a very young age: Wally's day school, Wildwood, for a time was located at O.D.Heck Developmental Center. Being the youngest I went there with my mom to bring Wally to and from school and for meetings. I remember being horrified and frightened for my brother when we were shown a closet where kids having tantrums were put. We had a book with photographs of Willowbrook. I looked at it once as a child and I was just sick over it. The thing that haunted me the most was a made for TV movie- it may have been "Sonshine"- about a family like ours. The parents checked out an institution and the dad took a detour from the approved tour and found rooms full of children tied to chairs, just sitting neglected, because they were like my brother. I grew up fearing that if something happened to my parents my brother would end up in one of these horrible places. How are institutions different really from concentration camps, where a person is incarcerated and robbed of their human rights because they were born "different" and somehow unjustly deemed unacceptable by those in power?

Make no mistake-people who are "normal" cause pain and suffering for people with "disabilities", more than their actual "disability" ever has! I would love to see a class action lawsuit come out of this horror in Texas, along with criminal charges of course, and an amendment to the constitution to protect people with disabilities from the kind of "help" these prisons are offering!