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Remembering patients buried at state hospitals

June 01, 2009

After several years of planning, organizers will hold a dedication ceremony on June 10 for the national consumer memorial, which will commemorate the hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous patients buried at state hospitals across the country.

Mental Health America (MHA), in partnership with the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health, will hold the event on June 10 at 10 a.m. on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., and install a granite marker bearing the quote "I must fight in the open" from MHA founder Clifford W. Beers. The ceremony is being held in conjunction with MHA's Centennial Conference.

The memorial, which was proposed in 2004, will include metal markers from all 50 states listing the number of patients interred and at which institutions, as well as gardens and a pool of water. (For a 2007 article on the memorial planning, click here.) The Gardens at St. Elizabeth's—A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity is being designed by the University of Georgia's College of Environment and Design, and will be incorporated into the existing 10-acre cemetery at the hospital.

The memorial originally was to be built at another location near St. Elizabeths, but the site had to be changed to accommodate construction of the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters. According to Larry Fricks, chair of the memorial project, the new site "makes this a much more powerful memorial. Those of us involved with the project are very thankful to have the opportunity to tie this to an actual hospital cemetery."

St. Elizabeths, which opened in 1855, was the first federally funded asylum. Construction is underway on a new, state-of-the-art facility that will replace the original hospital.

While the memorial’s construction will not begin until 2010, St. Elizabeths has begun preparing the cemetery, which holds the graves of more than 4,500 psychiatric patients, including Civil War veterans.

"The cemetery already looks more dignified," says Fricks, who also is director of the Appalachian Consulting Group and vice-president of peer services for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. "While the formal gardens have to wait until we conclude the historical and environmental reviews, in some ways the memorial is already underway because the cemetery is being restored."

Tax-exempt donations for the memorial can be sent to Mental Health America, 2000 North Beauregard St., 6th Floor, Alexandria, VA 22311.

Brian Albright is a freelance writer.

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