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The lonely madness of Alice G

Globe and Mail Update

The days of 'lunatic asylums' may be gone, but we still stigmatize – and warehouse – the mentally ill. One woman spent four decades at an institution without receiving any treatment ...Read the full article

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  1. Rae Vandenberg from Canada writes: I'm not sure what to make of this article. Am I supposed to be outraged at the treatment of Alice? As the recent conversations on residential schools will attest, life at the turn of the last century for everyone in Canada was much more nasty, brutish, and short.

    I do think both the provincial and federal government in Canada should do more to treat people with mental health. I am concerned that having a mental illness results in homelessness in Canada. That does not seem fair.

    I'm also quite willing to believe that many in prison suffer from mental illness. The idea that we have to debate whether a person like Paul Bernardo is sane is laughable. Of course the man is off his rocker. He's dangerous and society should be protected from him, but he's still a lunatic.

    Prisons and treatment centers for mentally unwell people should be clean and humane. They should not treat the wealthy different than the poor.
  2. john smith from Canada writes: i like to see my tax money spent on places like this, to care for the mentally ill people who cant afford treatment and good living conditions, i like my tax money to be spent on kids in orphanges or schools and shelters. it is cruel how these poor people were treated and are to this day.
    also Rae Vandenberg from Canada you cant possibly compare a psychopath, cruel killer like bernardo with someone as helpless and innocent as Alice G.
    if you ask me, people like bernardo deserve to starve to death, to be abandoned in some dungeon so for the rest of his suffering hours he can think of the murders he has commited.
    i have no concern whatsoever for killers in prison and i think the death penalty should be in place for those cruel heartless monsters.
  3. The Work Farce from Canada writes: Canada hasn't changed a bit in a hundred years. Still as punitive and scapegoating as ever, despite wealth, comforts and luxuries enjoyed by the vast majority noone a hundred years ago could have imagined. If anything, people are greedier than ever, more hypocritical, more ready to separate themselves from designated outcasts. Primitive societies rarely spawn people who have difficulties fitting in to the traditional roles. And they don't lock away people who are different. Everyone has his or her role to play in the economy. Increasingly sophisticated economies based on the adversarial system, motivated by fear, greed and scarcity will increasingly produce scapegoats to be reviled in order to keep workers in line.
  4. Gossipy Busybody from Canada writes: I think that -- during a week when the Globe is taking a heart-wrenching, in-depth look at mental illness -- it is completely tasteless for Stephen Harper to call another party's political plan "insane" and "crazy".

    Surely he could come up with better adjectives?

    On another note -- thank you, Globe, for doing this series. Mental illness, just like other illnesses, is everywhere.

    A young woman down the street from us suffers from ocd. It ruined her highschool years, but the kid were compassionate enough to make sure she went to the prom, had a date for it (a former schoolmate who flew in from another province) and has gone onto university. It's a daily struggle for her and her family.

    My first husband killed himself after battling alcohol and drug addiction. We didn't know that he was self-medicating for a seratonin imbalance. Now all his brothers are on medication for this treatable condition; one is still having a lot of trouble (Suicide attempts, multiple broken marriages) , but the other two are doing fine.
  5. Megan Ratcliffe from Toronto, Canada writes: I just think we need to better fund insititutions like halfway houses or CAMH, so that the people who are mentally ill and need medication, will get it, take it, and keep taking it, otherwise we wind up with random stabbings like the one that happened to that woman on Danforth at the bus stop. It was reported that the guy who was arrested for that was mentally ill. If we better funded halfway houses and made medication compliance enforceable, this might not happen. I'm tired of seeing the homeless mentally ill ride the street car and cause trouble and I'm tired of all the bleeding hearts who think that we just need to love them enough. No, we need to fund halfway houses and make medication compliance enforceable, particularly if they have already proven themselves to be a danger to themselves or other people.
  6. Toast Jam from Toronto, Canada writes: It's difficult to read of the cruelness faced by Alice G, but I agree with Rae Vandenberg - it's a reflection of the times. The mental health system in this country is markedly better today - and I've seen it first hand when a family member was admitted to the Alberta Hospital last year. Staff is caring, dedicated and knowledgeable about the mysteries of the mind as much as is possible. But there is so much we don't know, so how can we even start to treat. There is so much complication and stigma to mental illness. The primary problem that my ill family member has is that he simply does not 'believe' he's ill, so refuses long term medication. The stigma is greatest in his own mind. The irony is that I have other family members that work in the mental health care field. What I have learned from them is that the primary problem in making bigger strides in this field is our embarrassment at looking at these issues in the bright light of day instead of in hushed, ignorant whispers. Bravo to the Globe for being open and sober about this issue.
  7. Dennis sinneD from Calgary, Canada writes: We all have a responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. Do you have a friend or family member who is suffering from symptoms similar to Alice's? Do you ignore the quirks?

    Chances are, you know someone who is suffering from a mental illness. Here's the kicker... not everyone who is suffering has someone who is able and available to help.

    These people end up on the street. I'm not talking about drug addicts and crack hoes... I'm talking about people who have schizophrenia, who have debilitating depression, who are lost in a physical world and have no where to go.

    There was a time, like Alice's time, where people who were suffering had somewhere to go. "At 39, the unmarried housekeeper from Belleville, Ont., walked through the doors of the Toronto Asylum for the Insane...". Where would Alice go today?

    The asylum was not the problem, the problem was the people who were charged with their care were not properly screened or trained.

    The day these asylums were deemed defunct and useless and wrong was the day that people like Alice had NO WHERE to go but the street. The street... how fair is that?
  8. Peter North from van, Canada writes: From the editors note:

    "The following types of comments are not permitted: ...comments that make obviously false or unsubstantiated allegations"

    I guess the reporter's unsubstantiated allegations that we have always stigmatized the mentally ill don't count. Erin provides no evidence whatsoever and her article really has no point.

    I had written an earlier comment about how Erin's description (toothless old woman) and picture of Alice (in a bathrobe?) is dehumanizing and applied a similar description of the reporter to drive the point home, but that's a no-no at the Globe. The dead and the medical community are fair game, reporters, it seems, have much thinner skins.

    Other points the editors failed to post were the facts that nobody had teeth back then and that many people couldnt afford a fake set, especially the homeless. What evidence is there that Alice was lonely for the time she was there? Alice WAS treated by the best method they knew. Hindsight is valuable but doesnt give us the right to take the moral high road.

    More importantly, the reporter makes serious and unsubstantiated allegations that the medical community and society, then and now, stigmatized mentally ill patients. A sad irony that the reporter dehumanizes Alice by showing her in a bathrobe and describing her as a toothless old woman.

    I think Alice, her family, and the professionals who treat the mentally ill would like the same respect as the editors demand of their senior writer, unless of course, she provides evidence for her claim. And a walking path does not count as evidence that patients then and now have been stigmatized. The reporter sanctimoniously impugns the motives of society and the medical profession without any support for her accusations.

    what really is the point of the article? the fact that the other posts are quite unrelated suggest that the other readers dont know either.
  9. Karin Green from Princeton, BC, Canada writes: I too don't know what to make of this story. Please remember that in 1938 there were as yet no meaningful treatments to control the symptoms of mental illness. The pharmaceutical interventions that now allow many people with mental illness to live reasonably normal lives are barely fifty years old AND they continue to improve as we gain ever greater insight into the neuro-chemical makeup of the brain. I sincerely hope we are now not going to have to pay penance for yet another past social dilemma - judged out of historical context!
  10. Moe J from Montreal, Canada writes: This is really a sad storg, and it is not unique.
    Personally, I think the government cannot (and will not) take care of all societal issue, like this.
    Perhaps mentally-ill people not dangerous to society like Alice should be cared by relatives (I know it is tough, but more human) or special small residences.
    Again, tax money (whatever high the tax was) cannot be the solution to all of our problems.
  11. Dennis sinneD from Calgary, Canada writes: Moe J from Montreal, Canada writes: "...Perhaps mentally-ill people not dangerous to society like Alice should be cared by relatives (I know it is tough, but more human) ..."

    I agree. People need to accept and help their friends and relatives who are in need of help, but like I was trying to point out earlier, sometimes there is no one, no relative, no son, no husband, no one.

    It's then that our government needs to make safe, reliable, effective space available. I'd rather a big freaking warehouse than a dirty, drug infested street or city river bank.
  12. The Work Farce from Canada writes: Peter North from van, Canada: You seem to be in denial. Better start swimming or you might get bitten by an alligator. Treatment of those branded "mentally ill" was sadistic then ("therapies" that today would be called torture) and is sadistic now (lobotomies and ECT are both back in business). It's not merely "stigmatization" stemming from ignorance and fear, it's deliberate scapegoatism stemming from religious rituals older than the Egyptian pyramids. Change is difficult. But if you work at it, it is possible.
  13. LUCIEN ALEXANDRE MARION from Gatineau Qc., Canada writes: This is a very, very sad story and it squeezed my heart when I read of it. I feel that if similar should happened during our lives, We or close relatives with love and compassion and if being able to do it, should take care of their loved ones . If in the impossibility, our Society has or should have the obligation by law to give them the most cares with love and compassion. Nobody suffering of that illness especially our elders deserve to be excluded. This is one of the basic value of our civilized Society. Merci-Thank You.
  14. Eat your Weedies from Canada writes: It's heart-breaking to shut up or dismiss or undervalue so much human potantial among those with mental illness. It has become so easy to sweep these suffering souls under the rug for convenience and because they are not necessarily in apparent physical distress. I would support any increase that would service support for the mentally ill. There is no stigma in illness but there should be for hard-heartedness.

    ... On a related matter- I would any day prefer going to my grave knowing I supported governments that erred on the side of compassion and generosity than on stinginess and cost-savings. That hardly means irresponsability. (Down with the Conservatives...)
  15. minnie k from Canada writes: I'll have to disagree with the commenter who feels that the reporter dehumanized Alice G. I agree that some of the language is unnecessarily sensational, but I felt that the photo was important to my reading of the article. Without the photo it would just be a generic account of a random woman with no name, but its inclusion made me really think about Alice G and the person she might have been. (This point might just be a distinction between visual and non-visual people) I also didn't really think that the stigma faced by the mentally ill was really up for debate. ??? Maybe someone could elaborate on that for me. As other commenters noted, it's important to remember that life at the turn of the century was pretty bad for everyone, but I don't think it's necessary to bring discussion of the residential school system into this. It's also important to remember that the residential school system continued well past the turn of the century. I work with the homeless and see the effects of untreated mental illness every day. Everyone should keep an eye on their friends and relatives and listen when someone raises a concern. Unfortunately, some people don't have anyone looking out for them... we still have a long way to go when it comes to mental health issues.
  16. Eat your Weedies from Canada writes: Peter North- Any article that reminds us of the plight of the so-many-forgotten mentally ill is worthy of your time and space in this newspaper. As for de-humanizing Alice by callign toothless and old- since when is that un-human. On the contrary, All the more relatable for the people. But whatever- you like to parse.
  17. Eat your Weedies from Canada writes: Work Farce- wow. Interesting. I'll have to ponder your thoughts. Makes sense to me. Funny how socially advanced "primitive cultures" are- no? Seems that society got too complicated to be a community.
  18. Daniel Cunningham from Victoria, BC, writes: We don't warehouse the mentally ill anymore - we simply turn them out on the street to fend for themselves. It's a disgusting comment on how we as a society care for those who can't care for themselves.
  19. west slope from Canada writes:
    Was Alice G run out of the village and into the bush/pampa/jungle/plains?

    Was she branded a witch and burned alive?

    Editors: Is Alice G the best example to lead off a series of articles on contemporary mental illness?
  20. TERRI R from Kimberley, Canada writes: There has ALWAYS been stigma attached to mental illness, and always will be. I found this article reminds me again of the failure of the various Gov. to care for those who have no family support or who are unable to fend for themselves. Wo9nder why there are so many homeless in BC, ask the NDP who shut down the only safe havens for these lost souls. There is a great deal of unpredictable actions some mentally challenged people do, as someone with a schizophrenic brother that went for 20yrs. without proper help and instead just kept getting thrown in jail instead of a proper facility with ACTUAL doctors/nurses caused him and others a great deal of grief. This was mostly due to the NDP shutting down all the facilities here in BC, guess where most of these people are today. STREET
  21. Michael Peters from Toronto, Canada writes: I hear and read about people wanting to do more for the mentally ill, and for their kind-hearted intentions, I applaud them. Who doesn't want to help these people? The problem is, and I am basing this on a very limited sample, the people that I know, or have known, who have mental heath issues deny there is anything wrong with them and refuse treatment. So then what to do!?! We live in a society where personal freedoms rule. Unless someone is an imminent physical threat to themselves or others, you cannot force them into treatment. So while we all want to help the mentally ill, how can we help them if they either do not what to help themselves or deny there is a problem? Is the answer to FORCE them into treatment? If so, who makes these decisions and under what guidelines? It really is such a sad catch-22.
  22. Don Jenkins from Canada writes: The Mimico Asylum, now Humber College in New Toronto, was built by inmates and housed the overflow from downtown from 1895 onwards. Records show some inmates' symptoms included "growing stupider by the day" - to homeless people living in horrible conditions. The dead were buried in a lot which is now on Evans Ave. right beside the Kipling exit from the Gardiner eastbound. Some kind souls have put wreathes on the unmarked graves, estimated to be about 1500 strong. You can get a really good idea from a first-person perspective in this short novel by Nellie Bly called "10 Days in a Mad-house" written around the same time and available free online:
    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bly/madhouse/madhouse.html
  23. melissa thomas from ontario, Canada writes: I am looking forward to this series. I deal with mental health issue's myself and recently I lost my therapist due to retirement. There is no replacement. Due to "cutbacks" or not enough funding etc. I said, to my therapist, what do I do now? I want to receive help. but I cannot find the proper help. I cannot even find a psychiatrist So I can be properly monitored while taking medication. My GPDoc. is doing it.

    I have found over the year and a half with dealing with this, Most people do not know what to say to you. But it is only because society is not educated.
    I have often said to people you can be me for one day. believe me, I didn't asked for this! As well, I find if people cannot see you are sick they think nothing is wrong.

    It is sad, to see people on the street, but there are services out their for them, as well as homes for them. These people need to be guided to find the help. so they are able to receive the services that our country has. But, I know the challenge will be convincing them that they need it.


  24. Margaret Nieboer from Canada writes: For Alice and her family it was probably better than being in the poorhouse. All the mental institutions in Alberta were closed and the inhabitants are now walking the streets. This is worse than the 1890's for a lot of patients. Surely there is a compromise. There is a duty to take care of those who can't take care of themselves!
  25. Eat your Weedies from Canada writes: Margaret Nieboer- Yup. Now somebody has to convince Stephen Harper and his band of self-serving dimwits that community matters. Better yet, let's not vote for him again- OK people?
  26. Peter North from van, Canada writes: Don Jenkins
    interesting link - has the story been corroborated?
    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bly/madhouse/madhouse.html

    sorry writer,didnt know this was a series. hence the comments.
  27. Mr. Andrew Toth from Oliver, BC, Canada writes: )))))))))))Karin Green from Princeton, BC, Canada writes: I too don't know what to make of this story. Please remember that in 1938 there were as yet no meaningful treatments to control the symptoms of mental illness. The pharmaceutical interventions that now allow many people with mental illness to live reasonably normal lives are barely fifty years old AND they continue to improve as we gain ever greater insight into the neuro-chemical makeup of the brain. I sincerely hope we are now not going to have to pay penance for yet another past social dilemma - judged out of historical context!(((((((

    Please check out the following link. http://www.depnet.ca/
  28. Lynn-Marie Ramjass from Ajax, Canada writes: I recognized that wild eyed look in the eyes of Alice G. having seen it myself, so many times in my own reflection in the shop windows as I waundered aimlesslessly down city streets, out of my mind, in intense heat with no identification, guided only by the burning belief that somebody, somewhere would help me. I have an enormous family and many, many friends. I have been married thirty years this year and I have two strong, healthy adult sons. But it is a mistake to think that everyone who has this type of support system, gets the right treatment or clinical care. It takes years of various different psychiatrists and medications to find the right combination that works best for each individual. I received poor inadequate treatment on two separate hospitalizations and it took six long years to be properly diagnosed, but even then finding a personal psychiatrist took another five years. Finding a family doctor for most Canadians is difficult enough as it is, but finding a psychiatrist especially now, with the state of health care in this province being what it is, for many patients who know and accept they need help, sadly cannot they find it. They slip through the cracks. In my town of Ajax, we are facing a mental health crisis with the removal of twenty mental health beds and the closing of our mental inpatient facility here at our local Ajax Pickering Hospital. Now thanks to the RVHS and THe CE LHIN the patients are being thrown into crisis, losing their psychiatrists they have trusted and known for years, waiting up to six months before they get an appointment to see another doctor. To make matters worse GM is laying off 2,600 workers in September and one may only imagine the suicide rates, the violence against women and the general carnage that will result from this move. Things have gone from bad to worse. Imagine those who have no family and friends and how all of this affects them. I at least can thank my luck stars that I have a family, a home and support.
  29. Vasili Petrovich Lekanof-Shallcross from Seattle, Washington, United States writes: I want to thank the Globe and Mail for a thoughtful and compassionate picture of Alice G. It is totally believable to me that her insanity, with all that meant to her at the time, was caused by a severe disappointment in love affairs. The account of her life from her entrance into the Lunatic Asylum at age 39 until her death in deep old age was drawn in such a way that anyone who has had personal suffering in life comparable to the circumstances that caused her insanity could identify her and her sufferings as totally and uniquely human. I do no think that the description of Alice G at the end of life was dehumanizing, rather i think that it portrayed the depth of her sufferings, which probably could not have been prevented, particularly at the time.
  30. Runaway 08 from Wet Vancouver, Canada writes: Megan Ratcliffe wrote: "If we...made medication compliance enforceable, this might not happen. I'm tired of seeing the homeless mentally ill ride the street car and cause trouble and I'm tired of all the bleeding hearts who think that we just need to love them enough. No, we need to... make medication compliance enforceable..." Sorry to hear you're tired of all those loonies on the subway, Megan. I'm also amazed that you know so many bleeding hearts who think we just need to love them enough. And I'm upset - as a person with major depression - by your ignorant suggestion that forcing people to take their medication is the solution to your exhaustion! I guess it would surprise you to learn that a lot of people with mental disorders spend years trying to get the right medication or the right combination to help them. I was extremely fortunate that I only had to spend 3 horrifying months on various drugs, some of which made me much worse, before finding one that worked for me and - just as importantly - continues to work. But some people never find a drug that turns them into a "normal" non-bleeding heart person like yourself. Your attitude about enforceable this and that is much like that of the folks who put Alice G. away.
  31. Lynn-Marie Ramjass from Ajax, Canada writes: I agree Runaway 08 from Wet Vancouver with your comments regarding Megan Ratcliffe's insensitive comments. Most people are totally unaware of how difficult it is to GET PROPER treatment in the first place even when we admit and seek it ourselves. It does not happen overnight!!!! It takes years of various different drugs and psychiatrists until the correct combination that works best for each individual is found. Often the patients are misdiagnosed and that is a nightmare too. For example, I have bipolar depression, but if I were to take an anti depressant, I would be hurled into a manic state. It took me a grand total of eleven years to find a proper, compassionate and knowledgeable psychiatrist. I cannot tell you how many different drugs I had to try before finding the one that works best for me. Not all psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses are Florence Nightingales either. The patients endure far more suffering than most people realize when you are at the mercy of some people who flatly refuse to listen to you. It is the ostracization from society and family that still occurs to this day that is so shameful. The fact that two hundred years after the advent of psychiatry, many, many psychiatrists and those on the directors on various boards governing the hospitals etc. still, flatly refuse to heed the wants, needs, concerns of their patients and the patients families, as the situation here in Ajax regarding the closing of our inpatient mental health unit will attest to. When we patients find doctors who share more than a cold, clinical approach in our recoveries, when we establish a trustful relationship after working many months, perhaps years together, it is difficult to be thrust upon a new doctor by circumstances we neither created nor asked for. Those who have not endured what we endure will not fully understand, but would it hurt people like Megan Radcliffe to learn more about the topic rather than judge us so harshly without all of the facts?
  32. Runaway 08 from Wet Vancouver, Canada writes: One day, as I was on the airport bus, a man sitting near me began to mutter and swear. It appeared that he was upset that he was likely to miss his flight to Europe on one of those one-aircraft airlines, but his language and manner suggested a drunken schizophrenic.

    Fortunately, I'd seen a documentary on Tourette's - which is not a "mood" disorder, but could still be termed a "mental" one - so I leaned over and began talking to him. As soon as I did that, he turned into a "normal" person, and I was able to tell him what to do and where to go to make that flight. After we stopped talking, he went back to muttering, but more quietly and with fewer expletives.

    Education is really important, as we can see from some of the misunderstandings on this page.
  33. Mr. Andrew Toth from Oliver, BC, Canada writes: )))))))))Runaway 08 from Wet Vancouver, Canada writes: Education is really important, as we can see from some of the misunderstandings on this page.((((((((

    Education and medication are the answers, for sure.
  34. della baird from vancouver, Canada writes: dee vancouver:i see nothing wrong with the writer's description of Alice.the sum of years are written on her face,in her body language and her wide eyed stare. you see those looks day after day where i live as well.frankly it gets to be pretty depressing.it is also hard not to help them with a small meal,a slice of pizza a coffee,whatever soothes them for a short while.having anxiety and ptsd myself i often go home more depressed than when i went out to try to forget my problems for a while.i sometimes leave with a little less change as well.when i myself or someone else tells me i cannot afford to be so generous,i answer that i know what it is to be hungry,lonelyand scared.and i know the meaning of 'stigma' very well. i love how the ill faces light up WHEN YOU TAKE THE TIME to even sit and talk a while and the hugs mean a great deal to me and to them. i guess from my perspective it is easier for me to see and understand. i sincerely hope that if i did not have some of the same problems, that i would feel the same.

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