One Flew Over the US

Photograph Source: 826 PARANORMAL – CC BY 2.0

On the best route (also the route that the Metro North Railroad follows) to New York City from western Massachusetts, stands the remnants of a long-abandoned state psychiatric facility (Harlem Valley State Hospital)  in upstate New York. The many buildings that housed mentally ill people, like others in many states, have the appearance of brick military-style barracks with the exception that some of the windows of the psychiatric facility are covered with metal bars. On a nearby hillside on the hospital grounds, stands a large and newer building that appears to be the facility’s actual hospital. A person can easily imagine what kinds of procedures went on within the walls of the hospital.

Part of the former state hospital is now occupied by a private university with ties to an evangelical religion.

The closing of state mental-health facilities often created additional issues for mentally ill people and communities, as former residents were often jettisoned into communities in the movement toward deinstitutionalization in the 1970s. Before being cast off, many of those with mental illness were hidden away in rural settings such as this facility in upstate New York. In a society where people are expected to perform, mental illness has long had an undesirable stigma even though it is one illness among many.

Try to imagine a society that arbitrarily makes those who have cancer or heart disease removed to some remote and out-of-the-way location.

In the post-industrial US, a person matters only as much as that individual produces wealth for the economic or political elite. They, the power elite, throw crumbs to the rest of us in one form or another. It was always a matter of the crumbs of society thrown at those with mental illness who were relegated to these out-of-the-way public institutions.

Here, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of western Massachusetts, more mayhem is obvious. Several members of a Facebook community group posted messages about a bomb threat at a small, local college. Thinking about sanity and its loss again, a person or persons creating mayhem within a greater mayhem speaks volumes to a loss in the bonds of the social fabric.

And, as if some tenuous amount of sanity dared to be maintained against the gathering storm, the state of Massachusetts’ site for signing up for the Covid-19 vaccine for the 65-75 age group crashed repeatedly on its first morning of operation. Closing the portal to this failed site in disgust, I thought about how the Salk vaccine was offered to those of us in the baby boom generation during the 1950s. With no need to provide personal information, we showed up with hundreds of others at a local elementary school in the town where my family lived in Rhode Island and received the vaccine. Jonas Salk, the medical doctor responsible for the discovery of the vaccine, related how his vaccine discovery belonged to the public and was not developed for reasons of financial gain.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).