Many people with mental illness lead successful lives in their community, but it wasn’t that long ago when they were institutionalized in state mental hospitals. The Northampton State Hospital was one such facility. Though it finally closed in 1993, memories associated with being committed there have remained all too vivid for some people, including Steve.
Steve is 57 and has struggled with mental illness since adolescence. He was hospitalized multiple times at Northampton and had recurring thoughts that he’d be sent back. He feared that if he did go back, he would die there.
Moira Boyce, a licensed social worker with CHD Adult Mental Health in Holyoke, leads a mental health services team that supports clients including Steve. Moira had an idea. “The state hospital loomed over Steve,” she said, “so I asked him to take a ride with me to Northampton so he could see that it’s closed. It took some time, but I helped him begin to understand that it was completely different there now. Finally we made a plan to go.”
Steve had been for rides to Northampton before, but that was in the back of an ambulance in the middle of the night. This time he was going in a car, in the light of day. He was noticing the beauty of the area and discovering things for the first time. Moira said Steve was amazed. “I didn’t realize there were mountains here,” he said matter-of-factly. “And look at the river. It’s beautiful. I never knew.”
As Moira drove through the neighborhood surrounding the former state hospital, Steve was awestruck. He said, “These houses and apartments are fantastic!”
Then Moira pointed out the hospital’s one remaining, functioning building. Today it houses offices for State Senator Stan Rosenberg, the Commonwealth’s Department of Mental Health, and others. “Steve asked me, ‘Can we go in?’” she explained. She said yes and they went in. Steve asked a staff person if it was OK to use the bathroom, pointing out that he used to live here. It was OK. When he came out, he sat down in the lobby and said to Moira, “Watch this! Watch this!” She watched as he got up and walked through the front door, then came back in with a smile on his face.
Steve explained why he was smiling: “I walked out!” he said. “I just got up and walked out!” This was indeed a big deal. When Steve was committed there, he was an accomplished escape artist. He told Moira stories about how he’d make his plan, then escape, run through the woods, end up at a church and ask for money. But on this day, he just walked out. He said to Moira, “Thank you, this really helps.” She recalls holding back tears…just imagine the emotion of such a profound moment.
CHD Adult Mental Health in Holyoke provides services to people with a variety of mental health needs through a state-funded program called Community Based Flexible Supports. Among those services is housing in non-institutional, community settings. Such settings give clients considerable independence with structure and professional guidance that helps them become and remain stable.
CHD collaborates with the Chicopee Housing Authority in the Intensive Supported Apartment Program. Clients live in a cluster of apartments and are seen by support staff every day. Steve has own apartment there. He is stabilized on medication, he has good relationships with his neighbors and support staff, and he comes to see Moira once a week. In this humanized setting, Steve has been successful.
After their journey to Northampton, Moira and Steve went for ice cream. Steve talked about how much better he felt after seeing that the state hospital isn’t there anymore. Moira recalled seeing how a load had been lifted from him. “I feel like I want to take everybody who had an experience there,” she said, “just so they can see for themselves.”
Since the 1970s, CHD has been a pioneer in de-institutionalizing treatment for mental illness. Our supportive, community based treatment programs provide human-focused, outcomes-based opportunities for people with mental illness. If you ever need convincing that our approach works, just think about an innovative and kind-hearted social worker named Moira and a man who had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders with a ride in the car. Think about Steve.