Why I’m Annoyed by the Interest in Insane Asylums

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There has been a fair amount of talk recently in my neck of the woods about the Anoka State Mental Hospital. This place is touted as the most haunted place in the state, and for some reason it’s become a bit of a fad recently to want to explore the tunnels beneath the hospital, spend the night, or go urban exploring.

I’ve heard people giggling on the radio about how fun and scary it would be, or how they’d like to freak out their friends by going there. And to be honest it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and a little afraid.

You see the reason that this mental hospital is considered haunted is because of the treatment of the patients. Treatments for mental illness in the 60s and 70s were fairly harsh, and there’s good evidence that excess medication was used on most patients, along with restraints and electrotherapy (today’s electrotherapy is much different from the very painful electrotherapy of the past). There is a reputation of poor treatment and restraint in this particular institution. Institutions have a long history of being brutal places, that in some cases resulted in death of the patients.

Even today some diagnoses still come with “treatments” like restraints, sedating medications, or being committed against your will. We might think that the worst treatments are over, but all you have to do is set up a google alert for autism to find examples of kids being kept in cages or left severely malnourished.

So with that in mind, it concerns me that this very recent and in some cases still ongoing history is seen as some kind of fun sideshow. A recent Washington Post article commented on this same trend in many haunted houses and Halloween attractions, pointing out that making “insane asylum” attractions positions mentally ill people as dangerous and scary. It minimizes the actual struggle of being mentally ill by making it into entertainment, and in many cases can scare people away from treatment by portraying mental hospitals or other treatment facilities as scary and dangerous.

I see many of the same problems with visiting actual mental hospitals as a form of entertainment.

Whether you are visiting because you think the ghosts of patients are scary or because you want to be titillated by the barbaric treatment devices that are supposedly still littered around the grounds, you are actively contributing to stigma and turning pain into entertainment. If you’re visiting because mental patients make scary ghosts, congrats, you are contributing to the impression that mental patients are scary, violent, and dangerous. If it’s the place itself, then you are part of the reason individuals with mental illness are afraid to get treatment: it’s perceived as scary or abusive. We cannot ignore or forget that past treatments were abusive, but the solution is not to go look at them for fun. It’s to advocate for change and high standards today.

It is dehumanizing to mentally ill people to treat the actual site of their abuse as a fun place to visit. Of course there are people who want to visit with different intentions, but most of the talk I’ve heard has been that it would be enjoyable. Perhaps the hospital did not include the barbaric tortures that some people want to imagine, but there is no doubt that many people suffered and were abused in this location, in the name of treatment. That is not a fun story.

My mind is not a Halloween sideshow. People who want to go enjoy the spectacle of a scary insane asylum: stop. Please.