By Leah Harris
“So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
— Jack Riemer and Sylvan Kamens, Jewish Prayer of Remembrance
Over 45,000 people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities died while living at a California state hospital or developmental center between the 1880’s and 1960’s. Many were buried anonymously in unmarked or mass graves and did not receive recognition or acknowledgment as human beings, in life or in death.
To give voice, hope, and memory to all those who perished invisibly, we gather annually for a National Mental Health Day of Prayer. The Alameda County Everyone Counts Campaign, a program of Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (PEERS), will host the event, and invites community members to join us.
When: Thursday, May 2, from 10am – 1pm
Where: Fruitvale Village, 3340 E. 12th St, Oakland, 94601
“Our National Mental Health Day of Prayer event is serving as a kind of Day of Remembrance where people with lived experience of mental health challenges and their families and friends gather to support one another and to honor the lives of forgotten mental health consumers, especially those who died in hospitals and whose names are no longer remembered,” said Jules Plumadore, Senior Programs Manager at PEERS.
Unfortunately, this history of erasure of the voices, lives, and very bodies of state hospital patients is not unique to California. It is the history of everyone in America living with developmental disabilities and mental health conditions who was institutionalized in the late 19th and much of the 20th century.
That is, until the early 1970s, when a movement of ex-patients formed to support one another and to work together to transform the mental health system. In keeping with the civil rights movements of the time, activists including California’s own Jay Mahler and Sally Zinman, among many others, fought for our civil and human rights, dignity, and social inclusion. This movement also insisted that people with lived experience have a centered and meaningful voice in driving mental health programs, policies, practices, and research that affect them.
Because of their work, an international, intergenerational movement is ensuring that the voices of those living with mental health conditions and disabilities will never be forgotten again. A central value of our movement is self-determination, which means that we have the right to decide how we recover and heal, which may include traditional treatment, but may also include “unconventional” paths such as creative expression, prayer, or a wide range of spiritual approaches.
Among the event speakers will be PEERS Board Member Yvonne McGough, who organized annual events with the California Memorial Project (CMP) at the Napa State Hospital and Agnews Developmental Center from 2010-2016. She shared why she got involved with CMP: “These memorials are necessary because we can’t forget. People tend to forget that they were putting bodies in mass graves. No names, no markers, no nothing. Just unmarked graves. And the records that they did keep were not complete. That’s just not right. We have to be their voice and speak for them. ”
We will join together to sing, share stories, create art, and celebrate the role that spirituality plays in recovery for so many of us. A central theme of the event will be remembering those who came before us, and advocating for ourselves and those who follow in our footsteps.
To learn more about the movement to restore dignity to those who died forgotten in America’s institutions, visit:
- California Memorial Project: Reclaiming and healing our past by honoring our own.
- Mental Health Consumer Movement 101: The story of a social change movement (CAMPHRO)
- The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (Virtual exhibit and book excerpts)
- From Numbers to Names: State Hospital Cemetery Restoration – A film by Pat Deegan
- Ten Days in A Mad-House: Illustrated and Annotated: A First-Hand Account of Life At Bellevue Hospital on Blackwell’s Island in 1887 free e-book by Nellie Bly (historical account of institutional life)