Friday, May 18, 2018

Lifetime achievement award

On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, I was honored to receive a second Michael P. Metcalf Media Award from the social-justice and education group Rhode Island for Community and Justice. Presented for “diversity journalism that inspires, engages and empowers,” this one was for lifetime achievement. Thanks again, RICJ. I was humbled. I did not expect this.

Me, fifth from left, with fellow winners. Photo:
The award recognized my decades of writing about social-justice issues including mental health for The Providence Journal. I still do. In my remarks, I discussed how stigma surrounding mental illness has lessened since the 1980s, when I started this journey. Much remains, but things have changed since the days when countless people living with mental illness were sent to human warehouses known as state psychiatric hospitals, where they were stripped of dignity, abused, and forgotten. Many ended their lives there, abandoned by family and friends, powerless to leave or get proper treatment, their only voices the anguish one might hear in Rhode Island passing by the now-closed Institute of Mental Health.

I covered that institution’s dying days – even lived there for a week on a closed ward to write a story.
And one of my favorite stories ever for The Providence Journal was that of Hope Lincoln, who was locked away or the rest of her life after having a "nervous breakdown," which today would be addressed most likely by outpatient treatment including medication and therapy.

So I knew what happened when many patients breathed their last.

They were buried in a potter’s field, their insubstantial, identical concrete tombstones containing only a number -- no name, or dates of birth or death. Nothing to identify or affirm that a human life that began as all do, at birth with promise, had ever existed. No story ever told.

The afternoon after receiving my Metcalf award, I drove to one of those potter’s fields. I visit periodically, to remember and pay respects. And wonder.

-- A soft rain was falling and I was alone, just me and hundreds of numbered concrete tombstones and the people beneath. I strolled through them, as I have before, my thoughts wandering.

-- Who was 1276? A woman? Man? Wife? Mother? Father? Husband? A once-favorite nephew or niece? The "odd" cousin no one ever understood? Does a baby picture exist in some attic somewhere? Why does the moss grow on this stone more thickly than others?

-- This one, with the flag, only stone with one in the entire potter’s field. Was it randomly placed? Does a relative or friend still visit? Was the person a veteran, perhaps returned from war with PTSD?

-- And this, with the Christmas wreath?

My respects paid, I got back in my car and drove past the adjacent landfill – it towers over the potter’s field, another indignity – and past a couple of red-brick buildings that remain from the Institute of Mental Health. Then, onto Route 37, toward home.

Hundreds of others lie buried under that road. Another potter’s field lay there when Route 37 was built, but the crews building the road simply buried it with foundational fill, then paved over it. Not even numbered tombstones can be seen today.

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