We look back at the early history of our country as one that — at least as far as mental health goes — represented a dark period in history.
Anyone believed to be suffering from a mental illness during the 1700s and 1800s were locked away in asylums. Not so that they could seek treatment and maybe get better, but simply to keep the “scourge,” as they were called, away from “normal” people. And we say “believed to be suffering,” because there wasn’t exactly testing for mental illness. If someone claimed you had issues, away you went, with really no questions asked.
That’s what Nellie Bly discovered when she infiltrated the New York City Mental Health Hospital on what is now Roosevelt Island, which became the subject of her 1887 book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.”
There, Bly and other patients were abused, fed rotten food and provided dirty water. Most of the time, patients were left to sit on hard benches, with anyone considered dangerous tied together with ropes.
A lot has changed since those days, but not exactly the attitude we have toward those who suffer from mental illness. More often than not, we treat mental illness as if it’s the fault of the patient, or we simply don’t exercise patience when it comes to our interactions with those who are mentally ill.
There is a stigma on mental illness that our society just can’t shake, and because of that, many who may suffer from various maladies don’t seek the treatment they need out of fear of being ostracized. Where we may fear someone with mental illness may be a danger to us, often they are more of a danger to themselves, especially when they become the physical targets of others who might not understand why they are acting the way they are.
In 1959, Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture leader Matthew les Spetter — who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald in Nazi Germany — started Riverdale Mental Health Association with a small board of concerned neighbors and two employees.
The goal then is the same as it is today for the now-named Mosaic Mental Health: “every mind matters.” And with 90 employees, Mosaic not only finds ways to help those who need it most, but they treat each and every patient with the dignity they deserve.
While we are nothing like mental health savages of centuries ago, we still have a long way to go helping and accepting those fighting mental illness in our society. Yet we can start by remembering that we are not really all that different.
There are times we need more help than we care to admit, and it’s those times we should feel empowered to seek it out.
Mosaic has shown us that path for 60 years. Now we just have to follow it.