Once notoriously noted for its extreme overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the Huntington State Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia is now a 110-bed mental facility and is an on-site training facility for area colleges and universities in the state.
The Huntington State Mental Hospital was constructed in 1890 along Norway Avenue in the hills overlooking the city of Huntington, West Virginia. 1 The facility was authorized by an act of the state legislature seven years later, calling the hospital, “Home for Incurables.”2
Designed to accommodate 500 patients originally, the facility was carrying a load of 1,150 patients by the late 1940s. 1 Severe overcrowding conditions were well noted in a Herald-Advertiser account of a brief interior tour, where there was only 1 psychiatrically trained doctor per 150 patients, well over the 1 in 100 that was recommended. Likewise, there were no psychiatrically trained nurses, although 1 in 25 was recommended. There was also just 1 trained nurse for the entire hospital, whereas 1 in 40 was recommended, and 1 attendant for 20, while it was recommended that there be 1 attendant for every 8 patients. There were also only 2 attendants per ward that was responsible for 80 patients at a time. Attendants were also dismally paid only $90 per month, plus room and board, for a 12-hour day, 6-day-a-week job; other hospitals were offering $180 per month for 8 hours work.
The facilities were antiquated in every manner. The kitchens were placed in a building far removed from any wards, the equipment being old and unsanitary. 1 The food was carried by some of the patients in big iron containers from building to building, usually served cold. The state of West Virginia only allocated $1 per patient, and 37 cents were used towards meals; meat was therefore served at rare intervals. Menus that were inspected over an eleven day period showed meat twice — once for creamed chopped beef, the other for stew. There was no dietitian, and patients routinely helped cook and assist in the kitchen.
Because of the crowded conditions, there was no segregation of cases, except to separate the men from the women. The insane were mixed with those who were merely depressed. There were many types of mental illness in the facility – 17% “feeble minded”, 3% epileptic and 80% mental illness of varying degrees. 1 Although with proper treatment and funding, many of the epileptics and mentally ill could have been helped to live a normal life. Those along the border line would have had access to special, preventative care at the hands of a qualified psychiatrist, to be segregated from the “idiots and helpless cases.” Patients on the borderline were not given access to privacy, occupational therapy, books and magazines, music and games. Occasionally, a woman patient under strict doctor’s orders was allowed to cross the grounds to learn hand crafts in a facility designed for only 45. There were no crafts room for males, no occupational therapy director and no training to enable patients to strive to lean a simple trade, to work.
Entertainment came in the form of one movie a week, shown in the chapel that was seen by but a very small percentage of patients. No recreational director was hired, however, with a little extra funding, movies could have been taken to each ward, along with a mobile library or even games. 1
In the facility, disturbed violent patients were confined in some way, for they were feared by the others. 1 Such patients were often tied to a chair, restrained with arms down, in a camisole type of straight jacket. A reporter’s account noted that a “pretty young girl was restrained in a bed, a chain tied to her post. She had become so violent that it had become necessary to give her sedatives. She was in the one isolation on the ward as it was not safe to have her with others.”
Herald-Advertiser accounts stated that there was insufficient medical and nursing care to give insulin shock treatments, and that much equipment was desired. 1 The hospital had only one hydrotherapy unit, although four were recommended. With increased nursing care, more continuous-flow tubs could have been used, where water flows continuously over “violently disturbed” patients, where they would remain for four to eight hours, spoon fed food by attendants. The tubs reportedly “gave their shattered nerves rest, their minds peace,” although there was only one continuous-flow tub in a hospital that recommended twelve.
There were three image captions, stating,
“Here are a few tragic sights which greet visitors at the Huntington State Hospital, where overcrowding, insufficient medical personnel, and inadequate facilities are typical of the state’s institutions for the mentally ill. The girl at left is 14 and must be kept in the “untidy room” most of the time because it has the only cement floor in the ward. She cannot be allowed on the wooden floors as the busy attendant has 80 other patients to clean up after. She refuses to wear clothes. The four wash basins in this bathroom must serve all 80 women in the ward.”
“Picture in center shows defective and feeble minded children. One boy is an adult in years, the girl at far left must be restrained because she tries to put her fingers in the children’s eyes, the floor is discolored and soiled and there are no toys for these youngsters.”
“At right is a group of defective children waiting for their bath in the ward’s one tub – used by 80 patients. A 16-year-old patient will attend to this chore to assist the two overworked attendants who have 80 patients to bathe, feed and otherwise care for.”
The women’s ward held 80 patients, although they were only cared for by two attendants. 1 According to reports in the Herald-Advertiser, while the two women were “kindly and motherly,” they had to supervise and care for “80 tortured souls; must feed many of them; must take many to the two toilets provided for the patients on the ward; must bathe them in the old tub many of those who will have a bath.” The attendants, however, were usually ignorant of the various ailments and troubles of the various individuals, and therefore could not give them specialized care.
“Incontinents” presented another “unsolvable” issue. Since there were only two attendants, troublesome patients were often stored in the “ugly, cement floored bathrooms, some all day.” 1 According to a tour given to local reporters, one was a “particularly tragic young woman, tied there completely naked.” The others, a “collection of Mongolian idiots and feeble minded girls, were just sitting on the floors, clothed in ragged garments.”
Apparently, every effort was made to keep the facilities clean and sanitary, although the odors reportedly could not be eliminated because of the “excreta absorption.” 1
The male ward was equally overcrowded and understaffed, with 75 men and only two attendants. 1 “Mental defectives and mentally sick” that were old, young and middle-aged were all placed together in an “ugly ward, with no activities, no interests, little supervision, nothing but meals to break the deadly days and nights.” To a person with only depression and normal mentality, it would have been a demoralizing experience.
No money was available for any occupational therapy programs that would have “salvaged” a large percent of the male population and make them self supporting. 1
“I defy anyone ever to forget one casual inspection of the children’s wards. I know I haven’t been able to.”
-Reporter for the Huntington Herald-Advertiser
The children’s ward was located up “three long flights of narrow steel stairs, so twisting and turning that it is almost impossible to carry anything, or anybody up or down.” The male dormitory contained 87 children of different ages in an “ugly, grim room with no paint and falling plaster, soiled, unsanitary wooden floors that no amount of washing could keep clean.” 1 Children were not given access to furniture or chairs, just wooden benches. Windows were all but covered, neglecting the patients of sunshine and exterior views. The youths were often semi-nude or dressed in soiled clothing, often lying in limp heaps on the floor, or perhaps tied to toilet seats with heavy chains to prevent movement. There were no toys, games, books, music, no laughter or play.
“Just children at their day log occupation of waiting for meals.”
Most were bottle or spoon-fed, regardless of age. There were only two toilets and one bathtub, and just two matrons that looked after the ward. In addition, there were 16 babies in cribs that had to be taken care of, and 20 other “crib” cases of adults who were injured at birth and never developed mentally or physically. The attendants fed and did “what they could” for the unfortunate “creatures,” ranging in age up to 40 years. 1
“Here, they will stay until they die, and sometimes that doesn’t happen for many years.”
Because of the overcrowded conditions, no attempt was made to segregate the “tragic creatures.” One reportedly had two noses and one eye, another with “water on the brain.” Some were so “grotesquely crippled that they looked like monsters.”
The older “youths” were small, child-like, and unable to defend themselves in the men’s ward, so they were kept with the children. This presented a problem, given that most were sex perverts. In one case in 1949, a two-year-old female was molested becasue the matron relaxed her vigilance for only a few minutes. 1
The female dormitory was no better, housing 80 “pathetic waifs who will live out their endless days.” 1
Because of the crowded conditions, the more normal children were not able to be separated from the “feeble minded.” Some were epileptics of normal mentality, but because of recurring seizures, they were not able to be admitted to schools nor to the training school for the “feeble minded” at St. Mary’s. Doctors tried to persuade retired teachers to come and assist, but in doing so, the teachers would have to forfeit their retirement pensions.
“When we consider the vast sums spent by our state legislators for some unessential items, we wonder why a teacher’s salary cannot be managed. Some of these children could be salvaged with decent care and affection, exercise, recreation and crafts.”
Many children therefore wandered aimlessly, not being able to go outdoors unless some husky, older males carried them down the three flights of stairs. And since many of the children were “badly distorted or crippled,” they were required to stay on the third floor with seldom a glimpse of the lush green lawns and flower beds. Many hadn’t seen the outside in years. 1
“With no one to teach them, many are like young savages. With no one to love them, they cry in loneliness and misert. At night, they go to the ugly, crowded dormitory to sleep away another restless, frightened night.”
Aged patients were not treated much better, according to Herald-Advertiser accounts. Those in old age were placed in crowded, understaffed wards, the “seniles rocking and rocking, just staring stonily at each other.” There was “nothing to do, nothing to see, and they cannot escape from their misery.” 1
“Such misery, such sorrow are impossible to describe. It breaks one’s heart and you know it is partially your fault that such conditions exist. If mothers and fathers would only accept the Dr. Resor’s invitation to “come and see,” if church members and service club members would organize groups to see what Huntington has in her own front yard, good citizens would be humbled and ashamed and contrite.
“These things exist because of our own apathy and indifference. We have a duty to perform. Nothing is wrong with our hospital that we cannot correct. And we must demand that money be appropriated. Enough money this time to do a decent job. The moderate appropriation asked for by state hospitals has already been cut by the Board of Public Works. So if Dr. Reasor gets just the amount he originally specified at a minimum, without any for expansion, he must have a supplemental appropriation.”
As a result of these horrific recounts, and a national movement towards deinstitutionalization, the inpatient population began to decline by the 1970s. 2 In 1977, a reorganization of the hospital began with an emphasis on the specialization of direct-care services. One year later, an affiliation agreement was signed wit the Marshall University School of Medicine.
In 1988, the hospital became the first, state-operated psychiatric hospital in the state to be accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. 1 Two years later in February, an effort was made to reduce the number of impatient beds, therefore, Building 3 was discontinued which held long-term mentally ill patients. The hospital became a 90-bed facility as a result. In December, initial certification for the hospital with the Health Care Financing Authority was granted.
On October 2, 1999, the hospital was renamed to the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital. 2 In March 2007, construction began on renovating the second- and third-floors of Building 2 for patient care, and expand the facility from a 90-bed to a 110-bed Acute Care Mental Health facility.[stag_toggle style=”normal” title=”Sources” state=”closed”]
- “Tour of Huntington State Hospital Shows Overcrowding, Utterly Inadequate Care.” Herald-Advertiser 20 Feb. 1949. 3 Jan. 2008: 8.
- “History of Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital.” Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital 2006. 3 Jan. 2008 Article.