Contributing Writer

CHARLESTOWN – The stigma of mental illness, unfortunately, dies a slow death. For centuries, a lack of education and compassion concerning mental disorders has caused neglect, maltreatment and ostracization by the general population.

In 1828, the State of Rhode Island established the Dexter Asylum in Providence, herding together three distinct classes of individuals; the sick, the poor and the mentally ill.

At the same time, each town within the state maintained its own asylum; again, housing those who suffered from poverty, physical ailments and psychological impairments.

In 1847, Butler Hospital, a private facility, was opened specifically for the care of the mentally ill. Twenty-two years later, the state purchased the William Howard farm in Cranston and opened an institution called the State Asylum for the Poor & Insane. With an initial patient count of 118, it rose to over 3,000 in less than 100 years. 

Treatments for patients with mental disorders in Rhode Island, as well as around the country, consisted of shock therapy, wet sheet wraps, lobotomies and drugs causing uncontrolled seizures. 

In 1851, social reformer Thomas Hazard, of Narragansett, felt a responsibility to visit all of the town asylums in the state and report on how the mentally ill were being cared for. 

In Warren, he discovered two women who had been chained to the floor for four years. In Jamestown, a deceased man who had been confined in a stark room without heat for almost 20 years, had wooden splinters and pieces of straw embedded in his back. In Newport, a woman who had been contained in a cold room for almost 30 years, displayed a body permanently contorted into a fetal position due to a constant attempt to keep warm. 

The country at large has made some progress in the understanding and treatment of mental illness. We have realized the physically ill, the mentally affected and the poverty-stricken each have vastly different needs.

We have realized that many “treatments” and “cures” utilized in the past succeeded in nothing more than paralyzing and silencing a problem rather than fix it.

A general understanding of mental illness, and an acceptance of those who suffer from it, is something we as a society have yet to arrive at. Until we do, the stigma that has followed mental affliction for centuries will remain a hovering shadow composed of a lack of education and an absence of compassion. 

On Feb. 6, Penny Ferrara, manager of School & Public Education for the RI Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will present “Understanding the Signs & Symptoms of Mental Illness” at Cross Mills Public Library, located at 4417 Old Post Road in Charlestown.

The presentation will begin at 6 p.m. and will include the sharing of stories by individuals who have overcome their varied types of mental illness. The purpose of the presentation is to provide enlightenment and education, both of which are key factors in eventually eradicating what should already be an outdated stigma. 

This event is free and open to the public.    

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