A Human Connection Between People Is Essential: Remembering Amazing Doctor & Lessons He Taught Me

Dr. Dean Brooks allowed me to sit in his Hollywood chair from the set of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest during visit

(10-9-20) FROM MY FILES FRIDAY. I’ve been blessed in my life to work with many inspirational advocates. In May 2011, I wrote about Dr. Dean Brooks and his daughters. He died two years later. I think of him often and always with a smile.

The Cuckoo’s Nest Dr. Continues Speaking Out!

Dr. Dean Brooks has spent his adult life advocating for persons with mental illnesses. And he has not slowed down even though he now is 94 years-old and is living in an assistant living facility not far from the Oregon State Hospital in Salem that he used to oversee.

He first burst on the national stage when he appeared in the 1975  movie,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, as the hospital’s  chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Spivey, M.D.  It was a clever irony because Dr. Brooks was actually in charge of the hospital at the time of filming. In the movie, he can be seen interviewing Jack Nicholson to determine if he has an actual mental disorder or is faking it.

Dr. Brooks and I met after my book – CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness – was published.  His most recent advocacy effort is a short film called Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill, that is an extra added to the 35th anniversary edition of the Cuckoo’s Nest movie now being released on blu-ray.

In this short bonus feature, Dr. Brooks is interviewed along with his daughter Ulista J. Brooks, MD., and his granddaughter, Ulista Hoover, MD.  All three talk about how jails and prisons have become our new asylums and how community care, especially inadequately funded community care, is failing to help people. They also discuss the need for what Dr. Ulista Brooks describes  as  “true asylums” — the construction of new modern mental hospitals.

Need for longer term facilities

Her comments run counter to the belief that everyone with a mental disorder needs to live in a community setting. In the film, Dr. Ulista Brooks argues that some patients have a much harder time recovering when they are forced to live in a community setting that often is hostile. She says many patients feel alienated from their neighbors, who neither understand nor sympathize with them. She also argues that while she and her father have always advocated for patients’ rights, giving someone who is severely sick and disorganized in their thinking the authority to refuse treatment and not take medication is counter-productive and harmful.

In one of my most recent conversations with Dean, as he likes to be called, we discussed how the Cuckoo’s Nest movie led to an unfavorable image of hospital workers. The evil Nurse Ratched, brilliantly played by Louise Fletcher, came to symbolize the callous mental health professional. This upset Dean because he said the majority of his employees were kind and dedicated workers who were underpaid, yet showed up to work with patients who sometimes spit, hit, and kicked them.

Another irony about Cuckoo’s Nest is that Ken Kesey’s novel was about an autocratic force’s attempt to squash the individual — a popular theme during the 1960s. The fact that it was rooted in a mental institution gave Kesey an easy target. But Dr. Brooks, who played a key role in getting permission for the movie to be shot inside his hospital, never saw the story as an anti-mental hospital movie.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes is when the rebellious patient, R.P. McMurphy, manages to escape with other patients into town on a school bus. He takes them on a fishing trip. In the movie, Dr. Brooks can be seen standing on the dock with an entourage of stern-faced employees ready to punish McMurphy and return the patients to locked wards.

In real life, Dr. Brooks was one of the first administrators to push for patients to participate in community therapeutic outings.

Life magazine tagged along when he organized a rafting and mountain climbing expedition. Under his direction, 51 hospital patients, who had been diagnosed with chronic and severe mental disorders, were paired with hospital employees for a 16-day outing. Recalling the experience, Dr. Brooks told me that it was impossible to tell who was the patient and who was a staff member.

He took special delight 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 Dr. Brooks’ 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 Dr. Brooks 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. In the short film supplement, a historian talks about how one psychiatrist insisted that staff members live on the wards with patients in some hospitals so that they all could be part of a therapeutic society.

When Cuckoo’s Nest was being shot, Dr. Brooks 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 institutions at that time.

The release of the 35th anniversary edition of the movie on blu-ray disc will give a new generation a look at a classic movie that changed America.

I am glad that the package also contains Dr. Brooks’s warning that these changes have not fixed our badly broken system.

Sitting on a bench with his daughter and granddaughter, Dr. Brooks told me that patients need individualized care suited for their specific needs.

Care means more than medication. It means jobs, education and especially a safe place to live. He adds that it is as easy for a society to abandon persons in a community settings as it is by warehousing them in under-funded hospitals.

Continuing, he reminds us that the location of care is not nearly as important as insuring that persons get care. And being accepted as a valued member of a society can happen in a suburban neighborhood and, based on his decades of experience, also on the grounds of a well-run hospital.

Read More: A Trip To Cuckoo’s Nest Museum and Reminder Of How Far We Have To Go

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

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.