A Parents’ View of a New State Mental Hospital

western state

During the past fifty years, there has been a national, ongoing campaign to close state mental hospitals. The Justice Department, state governments and civil rights advocates have pushed the idea that mental hospitals are no longer necessary. Even my friend, Dr. Lloyd Sederer, who runs the New York State mental health system, recently wrote this in a Huffington Post blog:

The use of hospitals, which by their nature abridge liberty, is the least desirable alternative for someone with an acute mental illness.

No one wants to return to our nation’s asylum system where people were warehoused and abused. But can everyone receive the meaningful treatment  that they need in a community setting or do some severely mentally ill individuals require a hospital stay to stabilize the symptoms of their illness before they return to the community?

I find it interesting that if a doctor suggested that hospitals abridged liberty and were unnecessary for treating illnesses that did not involve the brain, such as cancer or heart disease, the medical community would be horrified. Yet with mental disorders — that involve the most complex part of our body — hospitals are viewed with distrust and disdain.

I was thinking about this irony recently because of an unsolicited email that I received from a Virginia couple who wrote to tell me about how happy they were that their son was receiving treatment in Virginia’s newest state mental hospital. That’s right, Virginia has built a new facility.  

Visiting Our Son

Do the words “mental hospital” conjure up an image of a dark, foreboding facility? Then you will be pleasantly surprised by the look of the new Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia.

The old facility (which first opened in 1828) was a hindrance to true recovery efforts. Although the staff has done its best in recent years on a limited budget to serve patients’ needs, employees were hampered by antiquated buildings which were dark and dreary.

Through a series of circumstances, our son was at the old facility for a month in September 2013, just prior to the opening of the new hospital. Now, he is a patient in the new Western State Hospital and the conditions there when compared to the old facility are like night and day.

The lobby is large, with comfortable chairs in small groupings. On the ward, there are screened-in porches, perfect for getting fresh air. There are enclosed courtyards for walking and larger outdoor spaces, including a basketball court, for recreation. The overall appearance of the facility is one of airiness and light, such a contrast from the dark forbiddance of the old buildings.

This new facility is a great compliment to the work of the treatment teams in guiding individuals towards their goal of recovery.

Architects tell us that how space is developed and laid out is very important to the sense of well-being. Subliminally, we feel better about ourselves if our surroundings are carefully laid out to include natural light, beauty, and open spaces.

Connie and I feel so grateful that Andrew is in such a world class facility getting the help he needs and wants. It is so unfortunate that one has to commit a crime or hurt themselves or someone else to get help. Andrew is doing very well and is turning out to be a success story. We went to see him the evening of June 10. This was a special day because his doctors told him he could have his guitar in his room. Music means so much to Andrew.

We arrived at Western and entered through the main entrance. One of the doctors that treated Andrew in September happened to be in the lobby when we walked in.  Seeing the guitar, he assumed that we were Andrew’s parent’s. He approached us and introduced himself. This gesture was very heartfelt and such a positive reinforcement of the efforts of the caring staff towards a recovery mindset.

We entered the secure ward without any issues. Of course, they inspected the guitar case and “wanded” us. However, everyone was friendly, polite and made us feel welcome. We were escorted to the visitor’s room where I placed the guitar case on the table.

Andrew entered the visitor’s room and his eyes immediately lit up when he saw the guitar case. We exchanged hugs. I suggested he take a look at his guitar. Andrew gently took the guitar out of its case, sat down and asked if we would like to hear a song he had written.

The song is called “Never Gave It Back.”

Tears welled up in our eyes as he played and sang. His voice sounded so confident and smooth. He still had this gift of drawing the listener into his music. When he finished, still strumming his guitar, Andrew said, “I guess it had to be this way….for me to get help. I am so grateful to be able to get treatment and so grateful that no one has given up on me. Thank you for being in my corner.  I really want to make a difference; this is the beginning of my fresh start in life.”

Andrew then gave us an envelope with a note inside. It contained a poem that he had written called “The Moment.”

“The Moment”

by Andrew Neil Maternick

The seeker sought and sought

Growing weaker, his life in a knot

When finally, at last at last

He realized no future or past.

It’s the moment that I must live

To find my heart so I can give

Back to so many who dared to care

A bright today I wish to share.

 The key to Andrew’s ongoing recovery has been  his acknowledgement of his condition, his willingness to work with his treatment team, family support, and continued hope for the future. Andrew still has a way to go. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight. But Connie and I feel strongly that Andrew will get through this and live a happy and successful life. He has lots of folks in his corner rooting for him!

What folks have to realize is that each case involving mental illness is different and involves different levels and types of treatments.  Mental hospitals are needed by many to stabilize and get the treatment they need to survive.  The only other alternatives for many are homelessness, jail, or even death.  If this country were aggressive in its “preemptive” treatment and care for those who suffer from serious mental illness, we believe that the level of dangerous behavior and “criminal” activity would be cut back significantly.  If only the stigma could be eliminated and mental illnesses were treated like other diseases in our society.  

We feel very fortunate that our son is being cared for in modern state of the art facility, with a well-trained staff. We hope that Western State hospital becomes a model for other states to follow.

Ray and Connie  Maternick

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.