Whatever the reason, it’s easy to forget how much social stigma still exists even in the United States around mental illness. And I use that phrase—one that I often prefer not to use—purposely, as it applies directly to a fascinating article that appeared recently in The New York Times that has brought these stigmas back to center stage. Dan Barry’s column, “Restoring Lost Names, Reclaiming Lost Dignity,” describes a project spearheaded by a schoolteacher, Colleen Spellecy, who is seeking to end the anonymity of some, if not all of the 55,000 people buried on the grounds of old New York State psychiatric facilities, mostly identified only by numbers corresponding to names in recorded in old ledgers. For instance, at the old Willard State Psychiatric Center in Ovid, NY, nearly 6,000 people were buried on the ground with only numbered plaques to mark their spots.
Standing in the way of the project, of course, are privacy laws, “protecting” the names and families from “embarrassment” of having had a family member die in a “mental institution.” Barry quotes a state mental health office official who says, “Stigma and discrimination is alive and well, though I wish it were not. Outing every family, whether they want to be outed or not, does not conform with the reality” (9)
However, according to Barry, advocates for the project say there is something larger at stake—including Larry Fricks, the chair of the National Memorial of Recovered Dignity project, who said. “There is something embedded deep in our belief system that when people die, you show respect” (12)
When I read about this project, the first question that I want to ask is whether these people are able to reclaim their dignity now simply because they are dead. Shouldn’t they also be able to reclaim their dignity because they were suffering humans? Why should suffering humans have been buried in what amounted to unmarked graves, the codes only known to a select few, simply because they were “mentally ill patients” in an “institution”? At what point does a human deserve to be stripped of his or her dignity?
This project is a wonderful one in that it is restoring dignity to many thousands who obviously can no longer speak for themselves. But it also highlights that this social stigma still exists, and as long as it exists, it means that more people are likely to be deprived of their dignity in some way or another.
I want to be able to teach my students about social stigma, at least as far as mental distress goes, as something that occurred in the past tense, not something occurring in the present. I ask you—how can we pull together and begin that process?
— Sarah Kass