A Good Friend and Fabulous Advocate Has Died: Dr. Dean Brooks

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During a visit, Dean let me sit in his chair from Cuckoo’s Nest

I lost a good friend and mentor last week and our nation lost a true mental health champion.

Dr. Dean Brooks died Thursday morning in Salem, Oregon, which is home to the Oregon State Hospital, where he was the superintendent from 1955 to 1981. He was 96.

Dean is best-known  for his role in the 1975 movie, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Although he was not an actor and never wished to be, Dean was cast as Dr. John Spivey, the director of the mental hospital in the landmark film. The irony is that Dean Brooks was the exact opposite of the dictatorial and callous superintendent who he portrayed in the film — a fact that several of his friends recalled this week in a joint telephone call after his death.

I joined Dean’s friends in talking about how he always put his patients first.  An example: Dean told his secretary at the state hospital to put letters and memos from patients at the top of his office’s  IN BOX. One day, she mentioned that the governor had sent over an important  note. Dean told her to put it on the bottom. He’d get to it, but first had to read the notes from patients.

In the movie, rebellious patient, R. P. McMurphy, played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson, helps several  patients break free from the state hospital so they can go fishing. When their fishing  boat is returning to the pier, a stern-faced Dean Brooks is waiting with authorities. In real life, Dean was one of the first superintendents to allow hospital patients to wear street clothes and to recognize the importance of community involvement in therapy. 

 

Life magazine tagged along when Dean organized a rafting and mountain climbing expedition for state hospital patients. Under his direction, 51  patients, who had been diagnosed with chronic and severe mental disorders, were paired with hospital employees for a 16-day outing. Dean took great delight in recalling how it had been impossible during that trip to tell who was the patient and who was a staff member. He was especially pleased in remembering how a psychiatrist had to depend on the steady hands of a patient with schizophrenia who was holding the ropes while the doctor dropped down the face of a 110 foot tall cliff.

(I later learned the outing matched Dean’s personality well. He was an avid rock climber. Sometimes he could be seen on hospital grounds carrying a backpack filled with stones to build up his endurance. He even rappelled once down the hospital’s exterior.)

The patient/staff outing reaffirmed Dean’s belief that a human connection between people is essential to recovery. In fact, of the 51 patients on the trip, all but 8 were released from the hospital within a year — and this was long before the development of newer anti-psychotic drugs.

When Cuckoo’s Nest was being shot, Dean  insisted that patients be given jobs and, much to his credit, famed director Milos Forman, teamed actors with patients and had his movie stars locked in a ward for several days so that they could experience the isolation that patients often felt in state mental institutions at that time.

Dean introduced himself to me during a telephone call in 2006 after my book was published. In  the coming months, we not only became good friends but he convinced me to join him in a new project. Dean was using his considerable connections to form the Dorothea Dix Think Tank. Dean hoped the bringing together of  prominent advocates and mental health experts could lead to the development of innovative ways to help improve our broken mental health system. He was especially concerned about the number of persons with serious mental illnesses who are homeless and in our jails and prisons.

Last week, members of the think tank put aside their monthly agenda to exchange stories about Dean with his daughters, Dennie and India. His third daughter, Dr.  Ulista Brooks, unfortunately was not on the line. 

One of his closest friends, Dr. Darold A. Treffert,  recalled how excited he and Dean were in the 1960s and early 1970 when both of them were superintendents at state mental hospitals. It was a time when mental health was getting national attention because  President John F. Kennedy had pushed through the community mental health act. The two men’s joy, however, was short lived. Treffert said that he and Dean both soon realized that federal and state dollars were not being put into community services when state hospitals were being closed down en masse. ” What we commiserated about the most was how the money was not following the closing of state hospitals into the comunity,” Treffert said. “The results were entirely predicteable.”

Those results have only gotten worse and can be seen in the large numbers of individuals with serious illnesses who are homeless, living in substandard housing, and in our jails and prisons.

When Dean saw what Cuckoo’s Nest had helped bring about and then saw how deinstitutionalization had actually compounded problems, he felt personally obligated to speak out and demand reforms.

Even though he was in his 90s, Dean never slowed down. He would call me and ask if I had read a news article or a new study. When his eyesight failed, he would ask his daughters to read him articles and books.  He would always end our discussion by asking me what I was doing to change things and then he would say, “I love you, man.” That is what he always told people, I think, because he dealt with so many people as a superintendent who were not loved.

Dean’s daughters recalled during our joint phone call last week that their father spoke often about how our nation badly needed a new Dorothea Dix. ((For those of you who might not remember Dorothea Dix, she was responsible for calling attention to the plight of persons with mental disorders in the early 1800s who were locked in jails and prisons. She is created creating the first wave of  state mental hospitals.)

In my mind, America had a Dorothea Dix in  Dean Brooks. His entire life was dedicated to advocating for persons who society neither wanted to see or hear.

His family was with him when he passed and one of his last requests was for them to write down several ideas that he wanted to share with the think tank. Moments before he died, when he was fading  in-and-out of consciousness, he opened his eyes and said, “We must continue the good fight.”

That was pure Dean. To his last breath, he cared about improving the lives of others.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Terri Wasilenko

    What a wonderful tribute to your good friend and tireless mental health advocate, Dean Brooks. I didn’t know that he played the part of Dr. Spivey in the movie. If I ever happen to see the movie again, I’ll remember this and think about the moral character of the real Dr. Spivey, Dean Brooks.
    Terri