Partisan politics being what they are, the cooperation last year between Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Republican-controlled state Legislature on a plan to bring a Toyota Research & Development facility to York Township says something about how badly Michigan needs new jobs.

Angela Cesere
Toyota will begin construction on the land as early as next spring (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)
Angela Cesere
The Ypsilanti State Hospital – primarily designed to treat mentally ill patients – opened in 1931. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)

After a West Bloomfield-based developer intent on building a subdivision outbid Toyota for some state-owned land south of Ann Arbor – the site of an old mental hospital – the state threw out both bids. The Legislature then passed a bill to allow the land’s sale directly to Toyota. Though the developer sued the state, it appears construction on the Toyota facility will begin as early as this spring.

Quietly lying behind the debate and excitement surrounding the Toyota facility, though, is the history of that land. Ypsilanti State Hospital was practically a small city at its peak in the mid-1950s, with a staff of nearly 1,000, 4,000 mentally ill patients, its own chapel, even a nine-hole golf course.

Today the site sits abandoned, its buildings largely gutted in preparation for their final demolition. Urban explorers and curious passerby who ignore the “No Trespassing” signs and venture through the open doorways will certainly find peeling paint and leaking roofs, birds flying about indoors and rooms of abandoned filing cabinets and kitchen equipment. They might not, however, have a sense for the scale of the human suffering that existed within its walls.

The story of Ypsilanti State Hospital mirrors the history of the treatment of the mentally ill during the 20th century. When the hospital was built, effective treatments were few, and mental hospitals were little removed from the insane asylums of the 19th century.

The state Legislature authorized construction of “a hospital for the human, curative, scientific and economic treatment of insane persons to be known as the Ypsilanti State Hospital” in 1931. The buildings were designed by Albert Kahn, the architect of dozens of buildings on campus, including Angell Hall and Hill Auditorium. The first six patients were admitted on June 15, 1931, and by 1932, the hospital was spending 80 cents a day on each of its more than 900 patients.

The diary of Dr. O.R. Yoder, the hospital’s longtime medical superintendent, shows the effects of the Great Depression that gripped the nation back then. On July 2, 1931, he wrote, “Were constantly stopped by hundreds of people seeking work. Several thousand applications on file.” Later that month, the Ypsilanti Savings Bank closed its doors, and the doctor was left with $1.75 in his pocket.

In the hospital’s early days, there were no anti-depressants or anti-psychotics. Psychiatrists generally relied on Freudian talk therapy. The type of patient who wound up in Ypsilanti State Hospital, however, was often too ill to benefit from talking. For these patients, there were a variety of bodily treatments, ranging from the benign to the bizarre.

Patients on “hydrotherapy” were given warm baths or wrapped in cold, wet sheets. “Physiotherapy” consisted of exposure to ultraviolet and infrared light. Those patients suffering from psychosis due to the end stages of syphilis were given heavy metals to ingest or deliberately infected with malaria. Before antibiotics, poisoning or life-threatening fever were the only options to kill the microorganism that causes syphilis.

Because schizophrenia and epilepsy rarely occur in the same individual, it was reasoned that causing seizures might treat schizophrenia. In 1937, two “shock” therapies, using insulin or a drug called metrazol to induce seizures, were introduced at Ypsilanti State Hospital. Metrazol induced seizures so intense that patients often fractured their spines. Electroshock therapy was introduced around this time as well.

These treatments were not particularly effective. In the 10th anniversary issue of Ypsi Slants, the newsletter published by some of the more able patients as part of their therapy, an article titled “Charter Guests Still Among Us” reported on patients who had been in the hospital since 1931. Of the first six people admitted to the hospital 10 years before, one was still a patient; the other five had died without getting better.

Crumbling copies of Ypsi Slants kept in the Bentley Historical Library provide a glimpse into the lives of the more highly functional patients. In addition to listing the scores of intramural softball games and providing compelling reporting on the prize cows in the hospital’s dairy, the newsletter contained something of a society column about the patients:

“Harry Lemmer of Ward B 2-1 is losing his expert touch with cards. He has lost 12 straight games. His friends say he needs a little practice. They are all eager to help him practice.”

The lives of the sicker patients, however, are scarcely reflected in the newsletter. Those patients who were too disruptive to be kept in an open ward with other patients spent much of their time in solitary confinement.

The post-World War II era saw the construction of two new wards, bringing the hospital’s capacity beyond 4,000 patients. It also saw an explosion of new research activities, ranging from mundane epidemiological studies, to “finger-painting as a diagnostic and therapeutic aid,” to work involving a substance referred to as “L.S.D. CID #527.” Dr. Jonas Salk honed the skills that would later lead him to develop the polio vaccine by testing flu vaccines in Ypsilanti State Hospital on what even a U.S. military medical history website describes as “volunteers,” in quotes.

The late ’40s also saw the expansion of another therapeutic technique – the lobotomy. To patients who failed to respond to psychotherapy, lobotomy offered a last hope. To the hospital, it offered a means of managing the most difficult patients. Indeed, suicidal or combative behavior was one standard the hospital staff used in determining whether to lobotimize patients.

Lobotomies performed at Ypsilanti State Hospital were somewhat less gruesome than the so-called “ice-pick lobotomy,” in which a surgeon hammered a metal spike into the skull through the patient’s eye socket to slice through connective brain tissue. A lobotomy, however, was still a serious matter. Of the 65 lobotomy patients in 1953, five died, and only one-third improved enough to leave the hospital or to require less supervision within it, according to a journal article by members of the hospital staff.

Chemical or electric shock treatments or extreme procedures like lobotomy had no effect on many patients. Schizophrenics had particularly poor chances. Of the 4,077 patients in the hospital on a given day in 1955, for instance, more than half were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Throughout the nation, large public mental hospitals housed these people whose conditions could scarcely be treated. More than 20,000 people were confined to Michigan’s mental hospitals in the ’50s.

Many of these people were institutionalized for years and were abandoned by their loved ones. A Friends and Family Circle was formed at Ypsilanti State Hospital in 1951 “to further the welfare of our patients, especially those, of whom there are over 1,000, who lack personal contact with relatives or friends.”

It was about this time that Ypsilanti State Hospital gained the greatest fame it is likely to ever have. Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, decided to try group therapy with three patients who all had delusions of being Jesus Christ. The logical contradiction of having two other Christs in the room wasn’t enough to cure the patients. But the resulting book, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” was required reading in many psychology classes for a generation.


Healthy Progress

The ’50s saw the era of the large state mental institution begin to pass. During that decade, doctors had access to the first effective anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs. There was finally a weapon against the terrifying delusions and suicidal depressions that haunted so many of Ypsilanti State Hospital’s patients.

The new pills, especially in the early years, had dangerous side effects, but they were safer and far more effective than insulin treatments or electroshock. Hospital staff faced a new challenge – for the first time ever, they had to turn away patients from dances and movies because too many were feeling well enough to participate.

The medical directors worked on developing active programs of therapy appropriate for healthier patients. A publication commemorating the hospital’s 25th anniversary in 1956 noted that the new drugs were being incorporated into “a total psychiatric treatment of the mentally ill.” A survey of the hospital’s buildings in 1969 found that they were functionally obsolete because the units “were all designed for custodial care of the insane and are not well suited for a therapeutic program of care and treatment for the mentally ill.”

What happened, at Ypsilanti State Hospital and across the nation, was not, for many patients, a “total psychiatric treatment” or “therapeutic programs of care.” Recognizing the potential of new psychiatric drugs and the shortfalls of large, impersonal state hospital, the Kennedy administration passed legislation encouraging the development of smaller, community-based mental health facilities.

Decentralized community mental health centers have worked well for many patients, who have been able to reunite with their families or seek employment while keeping their conditions in check with the aid of psychiatric drugs. But the drugs didn’t work for all patients.

Those patients, and patients who stopped taking their drugs after being released or who couldn’t afford them, have often fared poorly outside mental hospitals. Many of the mentally ill have ended up in prison; others have become homeless. A recent survey by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance found that 42 percent of homeless people interviewed reported suffering from a mental illness.

Thanks to the new drugs, many patients were discharged from mental hospitals. Across the nation, state officials dealing with budget shortfalls noticed that their mental hospitals were operating at less than full capacity and that Medicaid didn’t reimburse them for care in mental hospitals anyway, so they began to close them.

In Michigan, Gov. John Engler sought to cut state spending on mental health. Under Engler, State Mental Health Director James Haveman Jr. sought to close all the state’s mental hospitals. Ypsilanti State Hospital – by now renamed Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital – was one of the first to go, closed in 1991. Of the state’s original 28 mental hospitals, only three for adults and one for children remain in operation today.

A small portion at the back of Ypsilanti State Hospital, ringed with barbed wire, remained in use as the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, where the state sent individuals who committed its most twisted crimes for psychiatric evaluation. With the opening of a new building for the Center for Forensic Psychiatry just north of the old hospital last year, however, the complex has been completely abandoned.


A look inside

No trespassing signs, asbestos warnings and security patrols from a nearby state prison don’t do much to deter a variety of visitors from the remains of YSH. Some bored kids I talked to at 5 a.m. one Saturday had no idea what the building was and merely found it a more convenient place to drink than their parents’ houses.

Other visitors might be best described as urban explorers – people who make a hobby out of sightseeing in places they aren’t supposed to go, particularly abandoned structures. With its decades-long economic collapse and a lot of abandoned buildings after the loss of more than half of its population, Detroit is a national mecca for this sort of thing. Sites such as detroitblog.blogspot.com post photos from their authors’ explorations. As urban explorers often double as amateur historians, detailed histories often accompanied the posts.

Around here, Ypsilanti State Hospital is perhaps a would-be urban explorer’s best bet. Visitors should be cautious. Besides being illegal to enter, the building is decaying and downright dangerous in places. The demolition crews had a good reason, for instance, to spray-paint “keep out” outside the auditorium – its ceiling is coming down in chunks.

Anyone hoping to enter the morgue or the room where lobotomies were performed will be disappointed; that building was demolished in 2001. But the main ward structure, which housed thousands at its peak, stands for now. Though most equipment and furniture have been removed, some items were just left behind to decay.

Those who are unimpressed by rusted bedframes and broken glass and who have less regard for their personal safety can head down to the basement. Underground tunnels connected all the buildings on the hospital grounds, and there are some long enough that shining a Mag-Lite down them does nothing to illuminate the end. On one wall, someone’s spray-painted a message: “Death is here.”


What’s next

Soon the site of the old hospital will return to economic productivity, and few of the employees at the new Toyota research facility are likely to give much thought to the land’s past life. The patients abandoned by their families and society, the numerous suicides within the hospital, the ward attendant who was working an extra shift in 1987 to save up for retirement when a patient murdered him – these all have little impact on the daily grind of designing sleeker and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The last tangible link to Ypsilanti State Hospital and its patients will come down with these buildings, and what memories are left of life there will fade away.

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