Northern Psychiatry

The Counting Crows have to be one of my favorite groups. I could listen to their albums over and over without ever getting tired of them. Not only do I like the music itself, but the lyrics. Phrases always seems to be disconnected, or make little sense, at least initially. But once you hear them a few hundred times they just kind of fit. Not to mention that Adam Duritz, the lead singer, has dealt with a dissociative mental disorder. But still, look at his craft, what he has produced.

And I dream of Michelangelo when I’m lying in my bed
I see god upon the ceiling I see angels overhead
And he seems so close as he reaches out his hand
But we are never quite as close as we are led to understand

And I know that she is not my friend
And I know cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again and again

So as the album Recovering the Satellites blares in my headphones, and the coffee shop starts to fill up, I think about a trip a took a few weekends ago. My wife and I drove to Traverse City, in the northern part of Michigan, about three hours from Detroit.

Beautiful fall colors cuddled the tarmac we drove on, and the blue sky made the backdrop just that much more incredible. Michigan’s nature truly is pure, Pure Michigan, as the slogan goes.

So we get to Traverse City and right before getting there, as we pull in the small, but surprisingly upbeat city, we start reading on what we can do. Not like we could have planned during the 3 and half hours before, right? No, let’s wait until the last minute.

We come to find out that there is an old asylum, the Traverse City State Hospital, also known as the Northern Michigan Asylum or the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital.

Historic image of the Traverse City State Hospital

Yes, I think to myself. Another cool thing to go visit, photograph, and then discover more thoroughly.

My wife tells me that there are only guided tours, and that for the next 2 or 3 weeks they are all sold out. I think, oh well, we’ll see it from the outside, and there is still so much information out there that I can read up on it anyway.

But my instincts kick in. I tell her I have a plan. I go to the register where the tour operator sells the tickets. In hand a book that my wife wants to buy, and me speaking loudly to my wife in Italian just to set the scene.

“Oh, that’s too bad that they are sold out. We come from Italy and are here only for today. Is there any way you can make an exception? We would really love to see it. And we would love to buy this book”. Ya, that was my plea to her.

She understood and accepted. Sold! Not sold-out. We even had time to visit the main part of the now restructured and re-purposed asylum, Building 50. Smalls shops, cafes, senior living complex, and an exquisite Italian restaurant.

Senior living facilities in the refurbished Traverse City State Hospital

The tour starts and I’m there, camera in one hand and phone to take notes in the other. Joe, our guide, has been a Traverse City resident all his life and spoke about the asylum as if talking about his immediate family.

The Traverse City State Hospital was the third to open in Michigan, after Kalamazoo and Pontiac, in 1885. It was designed using the Kirkbride Plan, which focused on the exposure to natural light, flow of air, and in general followed the self-explanatory Moral Treatment philosophy.

Also, in this plan, there would be a vast amount of land, where patients could farm, work on carpentry and do other activities in the open air. There would be two wings on each side of the central building; the latter for administration, and the two wards would be divided by gender, and layered by the type of illness. This last point was to ensure that patients’ behaviors were grouped together as to not damage the well-being of other patients.

A Kirkbride Plan layout

Through his “Beauty is Theraphy” philosophy, James Decker Munson, the superintendent of the hospital for almost 40 years, expanded on the Kirkbride vision, and even prohibited the use of straitjackets.

This was all in the idea that the mentally ill had to be taken care for in the most natural way possible, looking to move away from the harsh treatments that had been experimented for long before then.

Aerial image of the now abandoned Fergus Falls asylum in Minnesota

Of Kirkbride designed facilities in the US, 23 are still active, 12 demolished and 19 are inactive.

Joe continued to walk us around, telling us stories of how the asylum was part of the city back in the day. How it gave employment, how people that had mentally ill relatives would have locked them away in the basement hoping that the neighborhood wouldn’t find out, and most surprising of all, how his school would take “field trips” to the hospitals.

He tells us about being 12 and jumping on the school bus, because that’s what they did back then – by his age i’m guessing it was the 60s.

He tells us how every day 23 Veterans commit suicide. And he tells us that of the 250 graves, only 3 had names on them.

He tells us of the apathy that is pervasive towards this issue.

He tells us that there were pianos for patients to use. He tells us of these high ceilings. He tells us that the steeples are not actually steeples but “ventilators”.

I try to capture these feelings. Not the abandoned building feelings. Not that eerie feeling.  BANG! The door suddenly shuts behind you. No, not that feeling. Rather, capture the abandoned “Beauty is Therapy” philosophy. The details, the patterns, the logic of what it could have been.

In this photograph you can notice the natural light pouring in. The high ceilings, the shape of the arches which all feel much more elegant that a modern hospital.

And notice the tiles? These would be beautiful by today’s standards, but who would ever think of investing in this kind of detail? For the mentally ill?

But, yes, not everything is “picture perfect”, pun intended. Yes, it still was an asylum. But could the diagonal bars have a softer impact compared to the vertical ones?

And to pass between one ward and the other, for ventilation, and for steam pipelines, they built underground tunnels.

Dorothea Dix was a public activist of the 19th C, who lobbied state legislatures and brought the first wave of asylums in the US. Thomas Story Kirkbride developed the Kirkbride Plan in the same period But that was almost a couple of centuries ago.

In the 1950s, there was a strong process of deinstitutionalization. There were two main phases, the first that started with decentralizing, and therefore shifting from long term psychiatric hospitals to smaller community centers. The second phase was targeting, and assisting, people with mental disorders and learning disabilities. Also, drug therapy started to become the main solution to these issues.

Today, in some studies reported here, state-run facilities house approximately 45,000 patients, which is less than a tenth of what it used to be in the 1950s. And because the population has almost doubled, that is about a 95% decrease.

And where have the mentally ill gone? The streets, jail, and who knows. Maybe some of the drug addicts we see on the streets aren’t just drug addicts. Maybe they could be plowing the land, working on the furniture or simply enjoying the natural light in a Kirkbride facility, and sleeping well at night? The same research shows that at least 15% of inmates suffer from some psychotic disorder. And the methods used in jail, such as solitary confinement, just exacerbate the problem.

Maybe the diagonal window bars were a good solution after all. Maybe Joe is right when he talks about apathy. And where does that put Adam Duritz (the Counting Crows singer)?

What I’m sure about though is that through photography I discovered yet another thing.

And because I also wanted to capture that spooky feeling, why not take a 30 second exposure of the tour?


Until Next Time,

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