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Time to confront mental-health crisis

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Susan Acker-Walsh

Susan Acker-Walsh

My Aunt Judy was born in 1944, a healthy baby girl.

Ten months later, after receiving a DPT vaccine, she was never the same. Judy had a “reaction” to the shot she received – an extremely high fever and encephalopathy.

Judy’s brain never developed beyond that of a 10-month-old and, on the advice of doctors, she was institutionalized at age 12.

After searching, my grandparents settled on Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, N.Y.

They visited on weekends for a couple of years and, according to my father, Judy’s only sibling, they hit every “gin mill” on the ride home from Staten Island to Long Island.

The pain of what happened to their daughter and the best-practices advice they received in the ‘50s about getting on with their life took an amazing toll on them and on
generations to come.

What happened to Judy has remained a mystery for 52 years.

All that was known was that my grandparents left her at Willowbrook – and that she was taken care of.

The subject was completely taboo within my family and no one dared inquire as to what happened to her.

That all changed two months ago, when I finally wrote my dad and requested his permission to find out what had happened to his sister.

My request was that we “claim her” as a member of our family, acknowledged her life and connection to us, and honor her by ensuring she wasn’t buried without a
tombstone bearing her name.

I received his permission and, one phone call and letter later, we found her – much to our shock and delight – alive.

Judy lived in one of the most hellacious mental-health facilities on the planet.

The conditions at Willowbrook were deplorable and were described by the late Robert Kennedy as a “snake pit.”

The federal government ultimately sued the State of New York over the conditions at Willowbrook, and it became the turning point in mental-health civil rights in the United States.

As we understand it, Judy was one of the last to leave Willowbrook.

The best medical advice at the time was dutifully followed by my family with tragic consequences.

My Aunt Judy has been living an hour away from her family for 52 years.

She is severely impaired, but the dignity of her life can now, finally, be celebrated by and with her family.

Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote: “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members — the last, the least, the littlest.”

One can only hope that North Carolina heeds the lessons from the past now as it struggles with its own mental-health crisis.


Susan Acker-Walsh., a Friday Fellow in 2001-03 at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C., is vice president and director of operations, global health sector, in Research Triangle Park, N.C., for SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

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