State of Mind | A History of Minnesota’s First State Hospital

State of Mind | A History of Minnesota’s First State Hospital


[Americana guitar music begins] For more than 150 years
the Minnesota Security Hospital has been the city of St. Peter’s most prominent
and most mysterious resident. Like the reclusive neighbor that everybody
recognizes, but nobody really knows the Security Hospital has always been the
subject of deep and sometimes dark fascination. Over the years the
institution has been called by many names: the St. Peter Asylum for the
Insane, the St. Peter State Hospital, the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center. In
its time, the Security Hospital has been both revered and reviled, seen as a cure
and an affliction, a blessing and a curse. In truth, it has been all those things
and so much more. Dorothea Dix, this nation’s first great reformer and
advocate for the mentally ill, once warned about the dangers of examining
isolated moments of the past. “The tapestry of history,” she said, “has no
point at which you can cut it and leave the design intelligible.” In other words,
we cannot truly understand the past unless we can see the whole picture –
follow the entire story woven into the fabric of the past with all its threads
and subtleties and details. Those are important words to remember as we look
back on a century and a half of history in these few moments. Dorothea Dix paid a visit to what was then called the St. Peter Asylum for the Insane in June of 1874. Perhaps more than anyone she would understand that it is not possible for
us to do justice to the complex, captivating, sometimes tragic and often
joyous human story that has unfolded here over the past 150 years. The best we
can do is look at some meaningful pieces of the tapestry knowing that will not
see it all. [guitar music fades out] [piano music begins] Soon after the legislature authorized
establishing the state’s first mental hospital competition to become the host
city was fierce. St. Peter – itself barely a decade old launched an all-out marketing campaign that boasted a more attractive or eligible sight could not
be found within the limits of Minnesota. And citizens put their money where their
collective mouth was offering an attractive incentive to lure the project. In July of 1866 the city paid seven thousand dollars for a two hundred and
ten acre farm and handed it over to the State – ensuring that the St. Peter Asylum for the Insane had found its home. The footprint of that original farm, its
operations and budgets have grown dramatically over a century and a half. Today the Minnesota Security Hospital campus consists of about five hundred
and twenty acres 42 buildings and 1.3 million square feet. Along with the
physical space, our understanding of mental illness, the people who suffer
from it and how to treat it have also expanded dramatically. But that knowledge
came slowly over three distinct periods. A temporary hospital opened in St. Peter
in December of 1866, admitting a few dozen Minnesota patients and ushering in
what is often referred to as the Pioneer Period. The North Wing of the permanent
hospital opened three years later in 1869. [horses trotting] In these early years,
patients often arrived exhausted malnourished and driven to wits’ end by
the hardships of pioneer life. For them, the primary benefits of hospitalization
were shelter, food and rest. By the end of 1872, more than 1,050 patients had been admitted to the new facility,
which was already building a second wing. Only six
of those admissions were voluntary. The rest were ordered to the hospital by a
judge and escorted there by a sheriff. Not surprisingly, certain things thought
to cause or contribute to mental illness in the 19th century, are recognized as
common factors in our own time, including head injuries, frightening experiences –
especially in the military, physical illnesses, the deaths of wives, husbands,
children, failed marriages and businesses financial disasters and the loss of
homes – all recognized triggers for depression today. Back then there were
also some novel causes thought to trigger mental illness, too – things like
political or religious excitement consulting fortune tellers, studying too
much or engaging in certain amorous practices. [violin music begins] It’s fair to say that hopelessness and
inhumanity were among the hallmarks of the troubling time known as the
Custodial Period. The hospital’s population more than tripled during
these years. By 1957, more than 3,100 patients were crowded onto the
St. Peter campus. For much of the period, psychiatry was in its infancy, and medical science
knew next to nothing about serious mental illness. There were no truly
effective treatments though there were many misguided ideas. It was also time
when most of society could not see the human potential in people with
developmental disabilities and could not imagine them living in the community
with the rest of us. For many of those patients, St. Peter and other state
facilities would become a lifelong home With little hope or expectation of
recovery, the focus was not on treatment, but control. The daily duty was to keep
patients safe from themselves and from each other.
Physical restraints, many of them seen as barbaric by today’s standards, were
commonplace. It can be difficult to look back at this sad chapter in the Security
Hospital’s history, especially for former patients and their families, or for so
many kind-hearted and conscientious staff who tried every day to do their
best for patients. But we must acknowledge the sobering truth that even
when the intentions were good, the methods for addressing mental illness,
developmental disabilities and chemical dependency were often foolish, neglectful
and cruel. [piano music begins] We should also remember that many good things, wonderful things in
fact, happened at the Security Hospital during that time. There were many
opportunities for meaningful work. The Security Hospital was an operating farm
until 1969, and patients tended fields and gardens and barns. They worked in all
kinds of trades on campus. There were dances and music and movies and holiday
celebrations, outings to lakes and picnics and parades, books to read and
literary clubs to join. There were many good times, touching moments and caring
long-lasting relationships between patients and the staff who loved them
like family By the mid 1950s, the winds of change
were blowing hard across the country and here in Minnesota. Calls for reform of
the nation’s mental institutions echoed in most every state and ushered in a
more enlightened era that began to change the way we think about mental
illness, developmental disabilities and addiction. At the same time, there were
important advances in drug therapies that showed true promise in the
treatment of schizophrenia. Together these social and medical advances
triggered a tectonic shift in the way we approach mental illness – shaking the old
ways and system to its core. Gradually, the focus has changed from mere custody
to active therapeutic treatment, and from a lifetime of institutionalization to
true healing and a return to community whenever possible. Ever-evolving and
often reshaped by new breakthroughs and ideas, this patient-centered focus
remains the same to this very day at the Security Hospital and all of Minnesota
state operated facilities. Recognizing a patient’s dignity, humanity
and potential to lead a rewarding productive life is the foundation of
treatment at the modern Security Hospital. Their uniforms and roles may
have changed across the decades, but the staff at the Security Hospital have been
a constant source of compassion innovation and healing. Caring for the
seriously mentally ill is never easy never simple, never clear-cut, never
perfect. The right way to handle a patient in crisis is only obvious in
hindsight. It takes special people to do this difficult and sometimes dangerous work and we ask a great deal of those who are willing to take it on. They must
be calm when others would be angry fearless when others would be timid,
they must anticipate things no one else could foresee and take split-second
action when others would be racked with indecision These amazing, devoted
professionals seldom get the credit and respect they deserve. What will the
future bring for the Minnesota Security Hospital? In the short term, its physical
presence will change dramatically and in fact, is transforming right before our
eyes. The first phase of a 126 million dollar expansion and renovation project
is already complete. Phase two is underway and should be done in 2020. The
new facilities are providing a much more therapeutic atmosphere and far greater
safety for patients and staff What lies farther down the road we
cannot know for certain. We can only take our place in front of the loom and weave
the next chapter into the tapestry of history, as Dorothea Dix so beautifully
put it. Just as those who came before us and started this important work we cannot know how history will judge us the decisions we make, or the actions we
take. We only know that we have come far that we continue our work with a sense
of purpose and optimism and that there is much farther to go [piano music fades]

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