The past cannot be undone, unfortunately, and the way we used to treat mental illnesses and what we did with the patients to either attempt to “cure” them or just keep them locked away from society has ranged from good yet misguided intentions to downright barbaric. Thankfully, times have changed and the handling of developmental and mental disabilities has improved by leaps and bounds in just the past half century alone. However, relics of this darker history still remain to this day. These are two of such places and their stories, both of which are still here in North Dakota.
1. North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown
The NDSH still stands and operates today as a psychiatric care facility in Jamestown. Of course, today it is run much differently than it used to be. The hospital was built and opened when North Dakota was still just part of the Dakota Territory back in 1885. By the following year, just over 100 patients were admitted into the hospital. At that time, it was known by a different name: North Dakota Hospital for the Insane.
Overcrowding quickly became an issue. Patients were sleeping two to a bed and attic spaces were used as sleeping areas, as well. Not only that, but the hospital was severely understaffed. Patients were kept locked up or restrained all night and day due to not enough people being there to attend to everyone. Controversial sterilization procedures were carried out on most of the female patients without consent as it was thought at the time that their illnesses could be passed down to children.
In 1953, a state health department official, Dr. R.O. Saxvik, was appointed to improving the appalling conditions at the hospital. "Gone are the cages, strait jackets, leg irons, stern guards, malnutrition, windowless seclusion rooms, unorganized departments ... the naked despondent patient on a back ward, the odors from wards crammed with untidy and helpless men and women," he wrote in a report after a few years of working there. It is terrifying to think of a facility with all those things mentioned. It still operates today but, fortunately, very differently than it did back then.
2. San Haven Sanatorium
San Haven Sanatorium has been featured in its own article
, but we mostly talked about the facility's history as a tuberculosis treatment hospital. This was the primary purpose of the facility from when it was built in 1909 up until about the mid 1950s when it was partially converted to an asylum for those with developmental disabilities and mental illness.
At peak population, the mentally ill and disabled patients reached numbers of around 1,300. As time went on and tuberculosis became less prominent, the hospital became a facility mostly used for these patients. By 1971, the name had changed from the San Haven Tuberculosis Sanatorium to just San Haven State Hospital.
There had been a lingering controversy with how the patients were treated here. The state did not cover all of the costs of the hospital. The condition of the grounds and the quality of patient care seem to be deteriorating over time. In 1980, a lawsuit was filed against the State of North Dakota to improve the conditions. From the evidence presented of the inadequate care the patents were receiving, the court ordered the state to improve the facility.
The improvements were only partially carried out and the hospital remained open for just seven more years before closing its doors for good in 1987. It has remained abandoned and slowly falling apart to this day, with no current plans to demolish or rebuild it. The ghostly shell of what it once was sits there still.
It is saddening that places like these operated like they did back then, but fortunately today there are many more resources and help for those in need of it that are constantly being improved through research.