Three Days in a Mental Hospital

(The author, Kenneth B. Klein, is a senior associated with Leverett House. During the summer of 1968 Mr. Klein worked for a PBH project at Lombard Farm. This is the story of his three-day orientation.)

AT ONE O'CLOCK we all assembled in the conference room of A-Building at Boston State Hospital. The boys all talked about how they would deal with homosexual advances and the girls about what to do in case of rape. I found I was assigned to ward O-2, which was on the notorious East Side of the hospital. I'd been assured by patients I knew that the East Side was a real horror-infested with big rats and mean psychiatrists.

I got into the director, Ian's, VW and we drove over to the East Side. It was bright and sunny and warm outside. It was the end of June. It was incongruous. We arrived at O-Building and entered through the canteen, where patients can buy coffee and chewing gum. The yellow walls carried a huge mural of Snoopy and Charlie Brown and said "Happiness is the O-Building Canteen." Typical volunteer propaganda, I thought.

We climbed up the stairs to the second floor. Through the heavy wire screen I could look down the stairwell to the basement, bare except for huge cans of civil defense water. Then I was on ward O-2; home.

Ward O-2 was home because I needed preparation, preparation for my summer job. I had volunteered to spend the summer in an experimental rehabilitation program for mental patients. Twenty-four other students and I had agreed to spend the summer at the Lombard Farm on Cape Cod living with twenty-five mental patients. The proposition was that being surrounded by relatively healthy albeit untrained people would be more beneficial for the patients than living in the mental hospital back wards.


But now, to get a feel for how our summer roommates had lived for the past twenty years or so, we were being admitted as patients to the state hospital in Mattapan. For three days we would be patients at the hospital, experiencing for a short while what had become year-in and year-out routine for the other half at Lombard Farm.

AFTER I ARRIVED in Ward O-2, we went immediately into the nurses' office. Ian introduced me to Mrs. Snowden, the head nurse. He told me that she was under strict orders: 1) not to talk to me, and 2) not to tell any other nurses, doctors, or patients who I was. The idea was that I should have as "uncontaminated" an experience as possible, that I should be treated as much as a patients as possible. Ian said goodby or something like that that made me scared and he smiled and left. I smiled to Mrs. Snowden and walked out onto Ward O-2.

It was very different from any ward I'd ever been on as a volunteer. There was a very long hallway with a row of ten doors lining one wall. Each door led to a small bedroom. The opposite long wall, coated with thick yellow or green hospital paint, was pretty bare except for the door that led onto the ward, an old Gauguin print, and halfway down the length of the ward, the TV. I glanced up and down the long narrow room and noticed a few middle-aged men, either skinny or fat in cheap untucked cotton shirts and chinos. Mostly they were sitting in couches or chairs and sleeping or staring at the TV. I took a seat.

I sat curled up in a fake leather chair for some time. Gradually I became accustomed to what little activity there was on the ward. The dominant sound was the TV. Below the TV there could be heard occasional snoring and shifting and shufling. And once in a while a far-away telephone ring from the nurses' office. That was all.

Finally I was able to look up: half way down the hall I saw a big man with an immense stomach taking off the top of a floor-stand ashtray. Looking for butts. He did that about every half hour for two days, and then disappeared. I heard that had been sent to some sort of a nursing home.

In a few hours, as I sat curled up in the armchair, I gradually made the transition from person to patient. The movement was down, and especially in. I experienced a luxurious, guilt-free withdrawal into myself. Eventually there was just me on Ward O-2 and a bunch of other crazy people with whom I felt close, and some vague abstractions like Harvard and Cambridge and Cape Cod.

A BELL RANG, like a high school hall bell, and everyone got up and slowly walked away somewhere. I was hungry so I figured it was a bell for supper but I wasn't sure. So I missed supper. I was all alone on the long hall of O-2, except for the synthetic voice coming from the TV.

After half an hour guys started coming back on the ward again, and then disappeared into their rooms. I was still alone. So after a while I went into the room that Mrs. Snowden said was mine. It was just like the other nine tiny singles of our ward: bed, chair, dresser, mirror.

It was highly unusual to have a single. I found out later that O-2 was for patients that were about to go into family-care units-living with a family as a sort of foster kid and occasionally returning to the hospital. The idea of singles was so they could practice taking care of themselves and things.

Reflexively I started opening the drawers of the dresser. I was surprised to find them not empty. There was a green baseball cap with BSH printed in it and there were some blue and yellow T-shirts on which was printed "BSH." A patient told me BSH stands for Boston Shit House.