I am the first to admit that I didn’t have a clue about what mental illness really is, and I have never claimed to be an expert on this issue, because I am not. When I discovered that my great-grandmother was sent to Willard State Hospital at the end of her life, it made my stomach flip and I felt overwhelming sadness. I remember reading her obituary over and over again to see if I had read it correctly. I even asked myself, could there be another state hospital at Willard that wasn’t a mental institution? Did she really die there? Why was she sent there? What was her diagnoses? Before I lose your attention, let me explain who was sent to Willard so that you will no longer be uneducated, unaware, or uninformed. Anyone who was not considered “normal” was sent to Willard including the elderly with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Remember, there really were no nursing homes until the 1950s. Others were Hearing Impaired, had Developmental Disabilities, were Trauma Victims including Victims of Domestic Violence and Rape (back then they called it “Seducer’s Victim”), had PTSD (Soldier’s Heart & Shell Shock), Menopausal Women, Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Brain Injuries, Stroke Victims, Epilepsy, Neurological Disorders, Psychiatric Disorders, and some were locked up because of their sexual orientation, personal beliefs, and religious beliefs.
You have to ask yourself, why are we so ignorant on this issue? Why are we receiving the great majority of mental health information from television commercials put out by the pharmaceutical companies and Dr. Phil? God Bless Him! Why is the jail at Riker’s Island being used as the largest mental health facility in the country? This is how we used to treat the mentally ill 150 years ago. When we pay our taxes which is a huge burden on the people of New York State, we assume that the people appointed to these high paying positions are actually doing their jobs and taking care of the people they are supposed to be advocating for; those who need the most help. Obviously, this is not the case and this abuse of the public trust needs to end.
Are burial records available to the public? Yes, but you would have to sit in the town clerk’s office and pull out each record that applies to that county’s particular state hospital or custodial institution. If you post their names online, you run the risk of being charged $10,000 for each violation, or each person. It would be much easier to record this information from each institution’s burial ledgers. Is it ridiculous that the Office of Mental Health classified burial records from state facilities as medical records? Yes. Were they really protecting the identities of former patients? No. In every correspondence that I received, it was made crystal clear that this was done to protect the families because some may find it offensive. Not only has the OMH insulted families and descendants of these people who were buried in anonymous graves, they have contributed to the stigma. They need to step out of the way, focus on the living, and hand over the burial ledgers to cemetery groups and responsible volunteers who will get the job done at NO cost to the state. Our ancestors and our families have nothing to be ashamed of! That would be like being ashamed of heart disease or diabetes. Putting names on a memorial, headstone, or list, should not be offensive to anyone, unless, of course, you are ignorant.
The list of these former New York State Hospitals includes but is not limited to: Binghamton, Buffalo, Central Islip, Dannemora, Edgewood, Gowanda, Hudson River, Kings Park, Long Island, Manhattan, Matteawan, Middletown, Mohansic, Pilgrim, Rochester, St. Lawrence, Syracuse, Utica, and Willard. The Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Custodial Institutions of New York includes but is not limited to: Craig Colony for Epileptics, Letchworth Village for Epileptics & Developmentally Disabled, Newark State School for Developmentally Disabled Women, Rome State School for Developmentally Disabled Adults & Children, and Syracuse State School for Developmentally Disabled Children. There may be more.