Institutional Rubber Stamps

consumer/survivor/ex-patient history Aug 21, 2011

There are small museums, all over the world, detailing the history of asylums. Throughout the 1990s, as part of my efforts to help restore dignity to those buried in state hospital cemeteries, I had the opportunity to visit many museums located on the grounds of state mental institutions and psychiatric hospitals.

Typically, the museums were very small and were created by former hospital staff. The museum artifacts, though interesting, were not nearly as compelling to me as the stories the exhibits were carefully organized to tell.

Out of thousands and thousands of artifacts, only certain ones were chosen for display. Those artifacts on display were organized to tell a story, which was almost exclusively the master narrative of the institution. The story from the perspective of the inmates was rarely told.

At one museum, located at the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville Georgia, there was a display of institutional rubber stamps. I photographed them and have included the images below. By the 1960's "Milledgeville" vied with Pilgrim State Hospital in New York as the largest mental institution in the world, with over 12,000 inmates. That explains the well-worn edges of the stamps used to process hundreds of thousands of people over the decades.

The sheer volume of people being processed in these institutions is hard to grasp for those of us who grew up in the era of deinstitutionalization and trans-institutionalization. For me, these stamps are a sobering reminder that during this time of economic recession and dwindling social service budgets, we must not resort to mass warehousing of devalued people. If we build the beds, we will fill the beds. We made that mistake once and must not repeat it.

These images of institutional rubber stamps also remind me that labels group people into categories and those categories shape how we view others and what we expect of them. We don't use actual rubber stamps anymore, but labels such as UNIMPROVED and GUARDED still shape whether we hold hope for people. In the field, I hear terms like "low-functioning" and "frequent flyers" and "burned out schizophrenic". These labels are simply value judgments and say nothing about the person to whom they are attributed. Instead, when staff uses such terms, they are signaling their own crisis of hope and compassion.

Finally, it's interesting to note that the word "recovery" is not in the rubber stamp collection. Instead, the term "restored" is used. To be restored has a much more passive connotation than recovery i.e., a mechanic can restore an old car or a builder can restore an old house. Recovery is different than being restored. Recovery is a verb. It connotes action, intentionality, a subject who makes choices, and self-direction. Recovery means that those of us diagnosed with mental illness are not the problem. We are part of the solution. There is evidence that the goal of recovery was part of moral treatment and the early asylum movement. However, by the time these rubber stamps were used, recovery had been forgotten and replaced by the search for restorative cures such as insulin coma, shock treatment, and pharmacotherapy.

The Unimproved


The Guarded 


The Fair


The Good


The Improved


The Restored


The Discharged


Do the images of these "stamps of approval" resonate for you? I'd like to hear your reflections!