Episode 27: From Insane Asylum to Psychiatric Center: A Brief History

MichaelHistory of Psychology, Therapy68 Comments

Join me for an interview with Dr. Roger Christenfeld, Research Director of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center. Dr. Christenfeld and I talk about how psychiatric patients were treated in the heyday of this incredible center. I think you’d be surprised at some of the things he has to say. Below you’ll find both an audio version and a video version of this same interview.

More on the history of asylums: an interview with Historian Jennifer Bazar on what life was like in asylums during the 1800s

68 Comments on “Episode 27: From Insane Asylum to Psychiatric Center: A Brief History”

  1. Tom

    For information concerning deceised family that were patients, contact NYS Office of Mental Health, Consumer Affairs Bureau. 44 Holland Ave. 8th floor Albany NY 12229

  2. CLove

    Having worked in an “institution” type setting for over 10 yrs. I do not agree w/some of the cruel practices patients of the past had to endure. But I believe the mentally ill/mentally disabled have it too easy now. They live in homes I myself will never be able to afford. They want for nothing, they behave like animals and they are well aware of their “rights” and there’s little to no consequence for the animalistic behaviors. Tim, I will never know what it feels like to be you, I never lived in an “institution” but when you ask why residents were not allowed to participate in staff parties/gatherings etc. That is because You and the other “residents” (clients, patients, Im not sure how the staff refered to the individuals residing there) Clients should not be involved in staffs personal lives. It was not cruel of them to not include the clients in their personal affairs it is keeping a professional boundary.

  3. John L.

    Was a resident patient at Hillcrest from 1976-78. Would like to
    communicate with others. (regardless of when you were there)

    Also, would be interested to hear from anyone who actually
    worked at the “nightmare on the hill”.

    Contact at : jdbj@mail.com

  4. John L.

    As previously stated, I was at Hillcrest for a little over (2) years.
    I was (1) of (3) residents remaining on the day they closed the doors for good in 1978. (not 1971 as someone said previously)
    In classic Hillcrest style; they tried to “screw” me right up to the final moments. I would be happy to “detail” this and other
    memories. Please contact me !!
    Would like to hear from anyone, especially those who were there with me. The “Nightmare On The Hill”. Please contact me at : jdbj@mail.com, or text to (504) 249-6619.

  5. Tim D.

    Dear John L. :
    Since March of 1972 was when I got out of what you correctly term “Nightmare On The Hill”, I am surprised that anyone would say that 1971 was the year it closed. However, since I was told that 1973 or 1974 was the year when it did close, I am shocked beyond belief that it stayed open until 1978. I do feel strongly that we should get together at some point along with as many others as possible who went through what we did. But since I am currently unemployed, I wont be able to do this for a while.
    I do intend to contact you, but at the present moment, I am busy.

    Thanks a million anyway
    Tim D.

  6. Kathy H.

    Hey guys,

    I was at Hillcrest from Oct. 64-March 65 and have just published a book about it. Look me up on Facebook, my name is Kathy Lou.
    You can also check me out by searching: KL Hiatt and or Turning 15 In The Loony Bin. I have a video with that title on You Tube as well.

    Why would we want to reminisce anyway? What are we, crazy? Yep, certifiably! Well not really, when I was in the admitting ward and they took me and a slew load of other patients down to be mug shot and fingerprinted, I ran to the done line when the nurse was bringing another patient in the room and I never had it done. Consequently, there is no record of me being there. They were so inefficient at that mad house. What a nightmare it was. Two years? you must be one hell of a strong person to have survived that without losing your mind.

    I’m really looking forward to comparing notes.

    God Bless,


  7. Olivia

    hey Kathy, I bought and read your book and i thought it was very personal and insightful. I really enjoyed it and it gave me a good idea of what it was like being committed to a state hospital.

  8. Joe

    Kathy, I too just finished reading your book and found it to be captivating. Thank you for your courage in sharing your story.

  9. Tim D.

    To Clove and Angela:

    Your responses to my podcast replies reminded me of an incident that occurred several years ago at the Waterworks Pub on Central Avenue in Albany whereby a woman who was recently discharged from Capital District Psychiatric Center entered the bar, urinated on the floor, stood in the same position for an hour without ordering anything from the bar, and would not leave when asked by the management to do so. When the Albany Police Department was later called in, they simply told the management of this gay bar that they could not force her to leave because previous civil rights cases in New York State meant that the Albany Police could be sued if they attempted to remove her, since she carried no weapons. A few years later, another such incident which involved a recently discharged male C. D. P. C. patient who entered an Italian restaurant on Albany’s Western Avenue, walked into the kitchen, started shouting obsenities, and simply went to a side booth and talked with a girl after being told to leave the premisses also threatened to sue the management if he was kicked out or simply touched. Though mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted with it, if a person is not capable or regulating their actions so as not to cause danger or nuissance in social environments, yes, the person MUST be taken into the custody of professionals who have the responsibility to treat and care for them, at least until the right medications can be found and the patient has demonstrated that s/he is able and willing to take it as directed, and on schedule. As for criminally insane people, such as John Hickley, who shot Ronald Reagan back in 1981 in order to make an impression on actress Jodie Foster, and who recently had to be denied release after security personnel at his mental hospital discovered that he was still keeping Jodie Foster parafarnalia and mumbling desires to capture her, we as a society can NEVER in good conscience allow for his discharge and thus people like him must be committed for life. However, as I mentioned in a previous blog reply, the greatest lesson, I feel, to have come out of the 20th century is that no person, church, hospital, school, branch of government, or any institution devised by man can ever again be totally trusted to always operate in the best interest of mankind, and the people who staff mental hospitals must be made aware that they too are being watched, no matter “how high up on a hill” they may be. Thus, all societal institutions must forever be counter-policed by the very people whom society is entrusted to govern and care for, as well as their loved ones. Since history is replete with examples of people who were involuntarily detained for unjustifyably long periods in state mental hospitals and ended up crazier on account of it, laws had to be passed simply as a matter of civil rights to ensure that involuntary commitment can only be done as a last resort, and that patient treatment is humane. So any and all incidents that happen in society involving the mentally ill breaking the law or creating public nuissance must continue to be brought to court in order to better determine what exactly are the rights of such mentally afflicted people, and if necessary, to the Supreme Court.

    As for the recent closure of Ross Pavillion – the last building to comprise H. R. P. C. – though this hospital, on account of it’s bad history had to be forced over time to clean up its act, I find it scandalous that this was done because for the patients whose families actually live in the town of Poughkeepsie, to move them across the Hudson River and down 2 counties to Rockland Psychiatric Center would not only be detrimental to the well-being of the residents, but would be just as much of both an inconvience and financial hardship to their families – particularly if they are poor and depend on public assistance – as it would be to close Albany’s C. D. P. C., and ship them back down to Poughkeepsie. As history has shown us, to bring about optimal patient care, we must not have a few big, regional institutions, but rather alot of little, local ones.

  10. Tim D.

    P. S. : In addition, we must work to make sure that all of the high-quality patient services that can be had in private hospitals can also be had in public ones, and that there is an abundance supported group housing and other crucially needed after-care services for ex-patients.

  11. John L.

    Hello former residents of the “Nightmare On The Hill”. Good to see so many of us still alive and well
    (at least alive) after all this time. I’ve posted on this blog a couple of times within the last year or so,
    since I discovered it. As previously stated, I would like to talk to anyone who was ever a patirent at Hillcrest. I would ESPECIALLY like to speak to anyone who was there from 1976-1978.

    Please call / text anytime at; (504) 758-2399, or send e-mail to; jdbj@mail.com.

  12. Tim D.

    Dear John L :

    I would like to apologize for not being able to contact you sooner so that we could share the awful memories pertaining to what you correctly term “Nightmare On The Hill”. However, I have not been able to do this because after May 2011, when I had to drop out of my senior year in college because my financial aid and rent money ran out, I was not able to get a job on account of this awful recession and I had to go on public assistance. However, since I was there from June 1969 to March 1972, I would still like to know if any of the kids I knew there at that time were still there at the time you were there. For this reason, I would like to give you the names of the inpatients I remember, but I will do so only on YOUR website, because on account of ex-patient confidentiality, I feel they should not be on this one. Once you have received them, please uphold this and respond to my eMail if you remember these people

  13. John l.

    Just checking in with all my fellow (former) mental patients. Was at Hillcrest Academy Adolescent from 1976-78. Willing to speak about it with anyone. Would especially like to speak with anyone who may have been there at the same time. Also, willing to speak with students / researchers. Feel free to call at; (504) 758-2399, or forward e-mail to above address.

  14. Laura

    Hi all,
    I was also in the house of hell with two of my brothers my given name was Lorrie Zehner and it was a nightmare when I was there some of the things they did to us kids was horrible and to put us on medicines also made us into zombies Kathy Lou I think you was there when I was I was about almost 8 years old then my brother was 7 and 11 they had a floor for the younger boys down stairs and the girls up stairs and the older boys also on the other side upstairs I remember a lot about that place John L am so sorry you or anyone had to go through the hell of that place I have went past it last year for the first time sense I had left in the late 60's
    would love to here from all you I'm also on Facebook

    God Bless you all

  15. Tim D

    To Lorrie Zehner:

    Sorry to bother you, but I think I remember you. I was on Ward #28 upstairs and you were across the hall on Ward #27. Mrs. Sipos was your ward's head nurse. You were discharged the same year I was, which was 1972. I remember Jeffrey Deere had a crush on you and was really upset to see you discharged. Just before that Ronnie and Bonnie Deere were moved down to Cheney, and Candy Hamilton was too. Back in 1981 Virginia Bains (now deceased) told me that Bonnie Deere got really fat and had three children. I only saw Felicia Pittman once up in Albany and she didn't seem to be in good shape. As I've said in previous eMails I refuse to refer to Hillcrest as a "school" or "academy" because the educational program was too substandard. You and I were in Miss Johnson's class, right next to the room with those tape machines and headphones. That point system they had was in no way a trade-off for the same type of educational curriculum that the kids in the public schools had on the outside, but since we were given no spending allowance in return for all of that ward work we had to do every morning, we would have been fools not to take advantage of the point system.

    Tim D.

    P. S. : Carlos "Carl" Mendez died two years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *