Today, patients at Griffin Memorial Hospital can get treatment and go on to lead productive lives. The state's oldest mental health institution was

By John David Sutter Published: June 10, 2007
NORMAN — Deep scratch marks still show through the thick white paint on the backs of the metal doors at Hope Hall. Inside the empty cells here, the frantic gouges and the carved messages—such as "open this door”—are harrowing reminders of the locked-up lives the mentally ill once faced at Griffin Memorial Hospital, Oklahoma's oldest mental health institution.

Now, Hope Hall is an empty and quiet place, one where footsteps echo down tunneling hallways. Bob McDonald, who once stayed in an open barrack on the campus, said "the noise level was huge” when patients were "warehoused” in the mental health ward, back in the 1980s and before. Their cries reverberated throughout the building, he said, and patients pounded on their doors. Some had only an eyeball-sized peephole to the outside world.

And more important, perhaps — the patients had little or no treatment for their illnesses. They were the castaways from generations that didn't understand them. They were locked up and kept out of sight.

More than 100 years after Griffin Memorial Hospital opened as the Oklahoma Sanitarium Co., Oklahoma is celebrating its centennial year of statehood. None of the celebrations will include a remembrance of Griffin and its difficult past.

But much has changed here. And former patients and former and current employees at the hospital say that is worth celebrating.

Now, there is hope, said Renee Mixon, who worked at Griffin for 30 years and now is executive director of the Oklahoma Psychiatric Physicians Association. She recalls seeing a document from the hospital's early history that brought the desperation of that era home for her.

"Pretend you've been to a funeral,” she says the document read, "because your family member will never leave the hospital, period.” "Today, in 2007, that is most assuredly not the case,” she said. "People with mental illness, with appropriate treatment, can recover and go on to lead successful, productive lives.”

The Oklahoma Sanitarium Co. was born at the campus of an abandoned Methodist college well outside a territorial town called Norman.

The state-contracted hospital was a response to the Oklahoma Territory's unsustainable polity of sending the mentally ill, or "the insane” as they were called then, to Illinois for treatment.

The sanitarium company was located substantially far away from civilization — about a mile away east of the rest of Norman. Far enough to ensure the hospital's patients had little or no contact with the outside world.

The hospital sustained itself.

Patients grew their own crops, ran a dairy with 450 cows, generated their own power, drilled for their own water and operated a butcher shop. Six grain silos from that era now sit in the middle of Norman's Griffin Community Park.

"We were rural at that point in time,” said Carol Kellison, director of management support services. "It was at the end of Main Street.”

Lacking treatment
Griffin's wards were packed in the early 1900s, and patients got virtually nothing in the way of productive treatment.

Some were locked in cells like those at Hope Hall. Other people were stored in barracks, where rows of beds were pushed so close to each other that the foot of one bed nearly touched the head of the next.

The population at the hospital regularly exceeded its actual capacity, sometimes by nearly double. In 1946, 2,844 people were living at the hospital, according to an article in The Daily Oklahoman. The capacity was 1,793.

The crowds created logistical problems in emergencies and in treatment programs.

In 1918, a fire in one of the barracks killed 40 people, Mixon said. The patients were buried in a mass grave that staff members said remains unmarked to this day.

Daily life was horrific for many.

McDonald, who briefly stayed in a barrack in the 1970s and was a patient advocate later, said he thinks of the hospital's old days like a nightmare that is impossible to wake from.

Patients were given medicines and treatments to "slow them down and manage them,” not help them get better, he said.

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More than 100 years after Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman opened as the Oklahoma Sanitarium Co., Oklahoma is celebrating its centennial year of statehood. BY JACONNA AGUIRRE, THE OKLAHOMAN

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