How Old Records from a Mental Hospital Could Help Inform Modern Mental Health Care – WMUK | Wonder Mind Kids

Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital cleaned the house. It was about to destroy thousands of old medical records when Professor Ann Chapleau of Western Michigan University intervened. Chapleau teaches occupational therapy and wanted to know what the record of mental health treatment 70 years ago might reveal.

In the 1940s and 50s, mental health care was very active. Scientifically, this calming and focusing work was called occupational therapy. Things like basket weaving, working with clay, or even caring for farm animals were used to treat patients with serious mental illnesses.

Occupational therapy was very popular at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, then called Kalamazoo State Hospital. Greta Decker worked in the children’s department in the 1970s and 80s.

“I didn’t know any student there who didn’t want to go to occupational therapy. It was a safe haven for the children. They could explore things that interested them. It was mostly one-on-one,” Decker said in an interview with Chapleau.

“For someone who has a lot of anxiety and excitement, it’s kind of a natural way to channel some of that,” Chapleau said of occupational therapy, which aims to address a patient’s physical and psychosocial needs.

Chapleau said she didn’t ask for full diagrams. Instead, she requested access to patient admission records, which the hospital kept on index cards.

“The index cards contain a lot of information about admission and discharge, family history, diagnoses, any repeat admissions,” Chapleau said.

Chapleau and her colleagues have combed through over 5,600 records obtained through the stop order. They also reviewed memoirs from former KPH employees, photos of the hospital, and old interviews. One featured Clarence Schrier, KPH’s medical superintendent from the mid-1950s to mid-’70s. Schrier recalled when the hospital had farms.

“The patients lived there,” Schrier said. “They worked on the farms. They had their activities on the farms. They sometimes had their own little gardens; flower gardens, vegetable gardens.”

Chapleau and her team even did some additional interviews, like the one with Greta Decker. She also spoke to Rosie Coy, who was an occupational therapy student at KPH in the 1950s. She worked in the hospital’s “broom closet,” where patients made brooms and other crafts.

“It was wonderful. Some of them took beautiful pictures,” Coy said. “And then they would be screwed. And I think they were sold, or maybe their family got them.”

Chapleau has put the oral traditions on YouTube. But it not only documents the past. She wants to know how old methods might influence mental health care in the future. Chapleaus focused on the years 1945 to 1954, before tranquilizers or the powerful antipsychotic Thorazine existed.

Professor Ann Chapleau with her PowerPoint presentation of her research at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.

“I joke about it, you know, we all drank Kool-Aid, that life before Thorazine was awful, and we all went around in straitjackets and were tortured. And now everything is great. “Thank God we have all these medicines.” When I think the picture is so different than that,” she said.

Chapleau admitted that there were some horrifying aspects of mental illness treatment in the mid-20th century — like lobotomies (though they fell out of favor in the late 1950s) and forced sterilizations. But upon studying the KPH files, Chapleau said modern treatment may have moved too much toward drugs and away from occupational therapy. She argued that OT has been used to successfully treat patients with even severe mental illness.

“They had a shorter length of stay than we expected and a success in acclimating to the community,” Chapleau said. “And that, we know they were busy with job-intensive activities during that time.”

Jeff Patton is more enthusiastic about today’s treatment model. Patton is the head of Integrated Services for Kalamazoo, the region’s premier mental health services agency.

“They don’t just prescribe drugs in hospitals,” Patton said. “They have occupational therapy, they have social work, they have psychology, they have education, they have all kinds of things, mental health rehabilitation programs and hospitals. I mean it’s a full package of support and services.”

But after viewing a synopsis of Chapleau’s research, Patton said it was “interesting.” Especially since drugs don’t work for everyone.

“I think if she’s arguing that occupational therapy can be used more broadly than it is, she might be right about that,” Patton said.

Chapleau stressed that her findings are preliminary, but she hopes they will inspire other researchers to keep going. She is currently in the process of putting her work online for other scientists to access.

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