Oral history project documents life at Traverse City mental hospital | Michigan Radio
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Oral history project documents life at Traverse City mental hospital

Aug 26, 2019

 


Mental health treatment has changed drastically in the past century. But it wasn’t that long ago that many people with severe mental illnesses were permanent residents at state-run psychiatric hospitals.

There were once 16 psychiatric hospitals across Michigan, including Traverse City State Hospital. An oral history project in Traverse City is shedding light on what life was like in those institutions.  

Stewart McFerran is the man behind the Traverse City State Hospital Oral History Project, which is a collection of interviews with former hospital employees. McFerrin has approximately ten interviews completed. He's hoping future interviews will include former patients as well.  

Many of these patients were involuntarily committed and forced to participate in new drug treatments. McFarren says that some patients spent decades at the hospital without ever receiving a formal diagnosis. 

“It sounded like from the interviews that I heard that a lot of the people there are in a sense warehoused. There weren’t any effective treatments, and they needed to be managed and cared for,” McFerran said.  

Employees were young, and the hospital was understaffed. Take for example Peg Warner, who McFerran interviewed. Warner was hired at the age of 19, right after World War II. When she entered the hospital she said she “had never seen anything like that before.” 

The Traverse City State Hospital had a farm operation that the patients would work on. Many patients would work every day on the vegetable, dairy, and hog farm. Employees would organize vegetable “peeling parties” in an attempt to keep the work entertaining. 

Activists soon demanded that the patients be compensated for their work on the farm. This request complicated the funding of the hospital. In the 1980s, there was a national movement to close state-run psychiatric hospitals, and the Traverse City facility officially shut its doors in 1986.  

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan