Bridgewater State Hospital and Its Problems

I became aware of Bridgewater State Hospital during my college and medical school years in Ann Arbor, Michigan through two events in my student life back then.

First, I was able to see the famous documentary movie, “Titicut Follies,” almost accidentally at a university sponsored film festival in 1970 or so. The film was all the rage since it had been “banned in Boston” by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.  It was filmed in 1967 by the now acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. I remember not knowing really anything about the movie, but going with friends to see this controversial movie. At that time, I had not settled on a future career in psychiatry. I was stunned at the content of the movie which showed deplorable conditions at a correctional center division of the state hospital located at Bridgewater Massachusted. After I finished medical school, I was

After I finished medical school, I was fortunate enough to land a six-month externship in forensic psychiatry at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry located on the grounds of Ypsilanti State Hospital south of Ann Arbor. This was a state hospital that had become famous in its own right. It was the subject and setting of a famous book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, by Milton Rokeach.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

The book was ahead of  its time, portraying the irony of three psychotic inpatients who shared a unit as well as the common delusion that each was Christ. The book was hit for years and required reading almost in every university in first-year classes in psychology. I had read the book as well and was fascinated by the premise of how these patients handled the dilemma of their common and contradictory claims.

Little did I know that my externship would bring me into contact with the late forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Ames Robey. Dr. Robey astutely had realized and discovered the identity of the “Boston Strangler” as one of the psychiatric inpatients at Bridgewater, Albert DiSalvo.

Albert Desalvo
Albert Desalvo, The Boston Strangler

This brought Dr. Robey national fame and publicity though he had no interests in all media attention. As an aside, I also was able to work under Dr. Elissa Benedek MD, an early female forensic psychiatrist, who was also a child psychiatrist, and a few years later, became President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She was a small bespectacled woman, calm, supportive and incredible teacher, and clinician.

So, these two experiences acquainted me serendipitously with Bridgewater State Hospital. Late last year, Bridgewater State hit the headlines again as stories of abuse, poor treatment, a group of deaths of three men in 2015 were reported in the Boston media.  Within months, three guards at the facility were indicted of involuntary manslaughter and the Boston Globe had a documentary series of articles on the all too familiar, decades-old tale of sandals and substandard levels of care. I had actually assumed that Bridgewater State, by this time, had long been closed. Silly me. Like so many state psychiatric facilities, it was very much needed and like an old battleship kept in service for decades. The news about the hospital by April of this year just kept getting worse. To me, it was like somehow seeing an eerie reprise of the movie “Titicut Follies.” That goofy and weird feeling kept me following the news stories that have emerged in the last two months in the Boston Globe newspaper.

How did this hideous story come to be repeated nearly 45 years later? The Boston Globe reported on the slowly evolving, yet almost inevitable conditions that brought this tragic replay back to life in an article in April 2016, this past month at the time of this writing. The usual culprits of legislative neglect through decades of inadequate funding, lack of oversight and installation of a poor level of care, and a herculean task demanded of an institution not properly fueled for its job.

A once famous historical psychiatric institution forced into repeating its own tragic failings because of legislative “neglect” forced into a Kafka-esque re-run reinforcing all the negative stereotypes of a psychiatric institution. This has almost a psychotic quality, all its own, in which the observer, cannot tell reality from unreality…





Author: Frank

I am a older child, adult, geriatric teaching psychiatrist with over 30 years' practice experience in North Carolina, first at Duke as clnical teaching faculty, then in Western NC as a primary child psychiatry specialist. I have taught and supervised child psychiatrists and psychiatrists in training and many other mental health professionals and taught at two medical schools. I have served in many public and private practice settings. My primary interest is in observing and documenting the ongoing mental health reform efforts in the State of North Carolina and documenting its sucessess and failures at all levels. My favorite pastime among many others is spoofing my friends and kids with my deadpan sense of humor.

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