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Georgia's mental health skeletons

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Last week, the state once again failed to reach an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which has, since 2009, pursued a civil rights suit on behalf of patients in Georgia's miserably inadequate public mental health care system.

The lawsuit was prompted by a 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution series, which revealed that dozens of patients had died from abuse in Georgia's psychiatric hospitals. Conditions have still not improved adequately to satisfy the DOJ.

Many of the abuse cases occurred at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, once the largest "asylum" in the country with 12,000 patients. In January, the state announced it was discontinuing most mental health treatments there.

Ironically, when it opened in 1837, Central State was part of a progressive social reform movement. Until the opening of such facilities, most mentally ill people were fated to lives on the street if their families could not care for them. But it wasn't long before the sheer volume of patients in the underfunded facilities turned them into part of the problem rather than the solution. The facilities became dumping grounds for all those who society regarded as misfits.

I had my own view of that in the early 1970s, when I was given a tour of the back wards of Central State. After visiting one area where people literally laid motionless on the floor like corpses, we entered a ward where there was a lot of commotion. My guide, a Central State doctor, led me to a seclusion room door.

I peered through the peephole and saw a man pacing back and forth, bleeding.

"He jammed the door," the doctor said, "and threw his shoe at the light bulb in the ceiling. Now he's slashing himself with the glass."

I asked why he'd been hospitalized.

"He's a homosexual," the doctor said. "He probably got arrested. It's considered merciful if homosexuals are sent here instead of to jail." He laughed. Literally.

Imagine the effect on me. I wasn't yet 20 and in complete confusion about my sexual orientation. I was attracted to women and men. I was well aware that my gay impulses were taboo, but it never occurred to me that I could be institutionalized for them.

That dreadful image haunted me for years. Thankfully, most young gay people today have no idea of the extent to which an alliance of the state, religion and psychology conspired to characterize us as mentally ill outlaws and sinners. And we were not alone. Overtly sexual women, confrontational African-Americans, petty criminals and temperamental adolescents were likewise committed for "observation" and sometimes for long hospitalization. There are 30,000 graves in the cemetery at Central State.

It is outrageous that a history of abuse and deprivation of civil rights continues to characterize Georgia's mental health care system. I hope the DOJ remains relentless.

In addition to writing about restaurants in CL's Grazing column, Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Check out his blog, Sacred Disorder.

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