Remembering Middletown state Mental Hospital from the Sixties

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

I recently read an article in Yahoo written by a psychiatrist who has taught at a major university for over thirty years. He referred to the old state mental institutions as “snake pits.” Many today believe they were squalid places where people were warehoused, abused and generally mistreated. I spent time as a patient in Middletown State Hospital twice in the sixties and that was not at all my experience.

The hospital was located in pretty country with spacious grounds and was always kept neat and clean. The staff in no way resembled Nurse Ratched. They always treated me kindly and seemed dedicated to helping in any way they could. During my first stay I was given a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments. These sessions were nothing like what they portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nor was it in any way punitive. I was given a shot which put me out beforehand, and I would come to sitting comfortably in the lounge area. I never so much as saw the room in which the electrodes were applied let alone experienced any pain. Best of all, the treatments seemed to work,

We had supervised outings including a trip to the New York World’s Fair. I got dental care. We had a movie theater and church services. There was a place to purchase snacks.

The second ward I was in had a ping pong table, a bumper pool table and a regular pinochle game each evening. Patients  that were able and staff participated.

We had a patient government with elected officers and conducted regular sessions following parliamentary procedure attended by patients ans staff. The staff were observers. Patients conducted the proceedings. Grievances and concerns of the patients were brought up and addressed when merited.

I was treated with the best known methods including medication, sessions with a psychiatrist and group therapy sessions. In neither stay was I kept longer than necessary. As an adult, (the second stay) I had to periodically sign a consent form for them to be able to keep me. Unlike what usually happens today, they kept me long enough.

My disease has twice resulted in my spending time in jail. There instead of being well and kindly treated I experienced physical restraints and solitary confinement. (Try doing solitary while experiencing a manic episode sometime.)

Nobody ever wants to be confined whether in jail or a hospital. At no time was I glad to be in a mental hospital, but for me it was much, much better than the streets or jail where many seriously mentally ill go today. Based on my experience, deinstitutionalization was a terrible mistake.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Middletown state Mental Hospital from the Sixties

  1. Reblogged this on word from the trenches and commented:
    I’ve often felt conflicted about the years my brother spent in a New York State psychiatric hospital. On one hand, I was in no position to provide a safe home for him. I was in my mid twenties, pretty broke, married with a small child, and living in another state. And my parents were ill equipped to handle his frequent outbursts. Besides, they had maxed out their insurance policy, and had already spent the money they had raised with second mortgage on their home trying to care for him. A state hospital seemed to be the only way to get him the psychiatric care he needed. Yet popular media kept providing stories like One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and worse, reports filed by investigative reporters that made the hospitals sound like torture chambers. There seemed to be no way to win.
    Yet as the years have gone by, I realize that Paul was one of the lucky ones. Unlike people newly ill in the past decade, Paul was cared for in a safe setting. He was never homeless, never arrested, never in any trouble with police. And he never lost the support of his family. We were there for him, as best we could, till the end.
    I was happy to see the following, posted by another blogger.


      1. I tried to get my records from the sixties a couple years ago Cathy. Unfortunately the hospital is no longer open and the people with the records didn’t keep them from that far back. Wish I could help.


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