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Review of "The Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State Hospitals"

By Leo Polaski
King's Park Heritage Museum Publications, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 6th 2004
The Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State Hospitals

The Farm Colonies is a fascinating collection of photographs of the state mental hospitals of Long Island over the last century. These four hospitals, Kings Park, Pilgrim, Central Islip, and Edgewood, were most used during the 1950s and 1960s when they cared for 37,000 mental patients at any one time, which constituted 77% of New York City's and 37% of New York State's demented patients. Pilgrim State Hospital alone had a capacity for 15,000 patients at its maximum, and was the largest psychiatric hospital in the world.

When one thinks of the state mental hospitals of the middle of the century, images of overcrowded wards and inhumane treatment come to mind. Movies such as The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest have burned into our collective consciousness a negative picture of those psychiatric wards. Life magazine published an important article by Albert Q. Maisel entitled "Bedlam 1946" and another influential portrayal of these hospitals was in Albert Deutsch's 1948 Shame of the States. The Farm Colonies presents a very different perspective, showing the day-to-day life of these Long Island hospitals, in nine chapters, with over 250 black and white photographs. They show the buildings and aerial views of the grounds, the wards, and some of the treatments. However, the notable images are of the patients and those who cared for them.

Maybe the most interesting chapter is that on "Patient Life in the Wards," which includes pictures of nurses dressed up as clowns and as Santa Claus, patients and staff participating in theatrical entertainments, and a Halloween party. Also remarkable are the images in the chapter on "Recreational Therapy," which include patients playing with a model railroad, a woman's party in a solarium with patients dancing to music from a crank-operated Victrola, a men's exercise class, various sporting activities, and patients and staff putting on a musical. The chapter on "Patient Occupations" shows patients working on the hospital newspapers, in the greenhouses, repairing mattresses, and working in a metal shop.

All the photographs are accompanied by explanatory text and the book starts with a short introduction explaining the history of the rise of the Long Island state mental hospitals. The text is fairly terse and factual, but it should be noted that it takes a very positive view of the activities of the hospitals. It emphatically does not dwell on the institutionalization of patients but instead focuses on the ways in which the hospital activities help patients to prepare for life outside. The Farm Colonies gives the impression that the use of large mental hospitals is a feasible way for society to help people with serious mental illnesses.

It is generally accepted that deinstitutionalization in the USA was a result of a desire to cut costs combined with a belief that hospitals were not a good way to treat most people with mental illnesses. The availability of new medications such as Thorazine made it easier to hope that patients could life in half-way homes or get outpatient treatment through community mental health centers. These days it seems very unlikely that we would ever return to the days of large state mental hospitals, but with the large numbers of homeless mentally ill and the crisis in care for the seriously mentally ill, one might wonder whether those hospitals might been a comparatively positive experience for many patients. Even though it clearly depicts some crowded dormitories and while many would not chose to live in such huge institutions, nevertheless The Farm Colonies may fuel reflection on whether those old hospitals provided benefits that we now sorely miss. Highly recommended, especially for those in New York State.


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2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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