Rick Winchell was the editor of the Lakeshore News, a local newspaper which later became the Etobicoke Gazette. The authorities of the hospital approached him in order to ask for his assistance in the assessment of the public image of the institution. Certainly, this fact point to their concerns that perhaps the public perception of the hospital was not entirely positive.
Winchell visited the hospital on several occasions. During his visits, he was introduced to all the therapeutic programs that the hospital offered. He was even was invited to spend one night in a closed male ward, an offer, which he decided to accept. This project was set up by Grant Dobson, Lakeshore’s public relations director. Winchell later admitted in his article for the Etobicoke Gazette that it was the various misconceptions regarding the hospital and its patients that prompted him to experience the reality of psychiatric confinement.
These prejudices, to which Winchell attests, reflect the ignorance of the local community: the hospital was perceived as basically a seclusion, where the “lunatics” were kept under lock and key from the “normal,” healthy people.
Prior to his staged “admission,” the journalist had a brief meeting with the staff during which they confessed to their apprehension about the entire experiment. He introduces the account of his experiences at a closed ward of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in the following manner:
“I checked into the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital about 2:30 Thursday afternoon. For days I nervously thought up different stories about my background so I wouldn’t blow my cover.” But upon arrival he must have been quite relieved to discover that the patients did not question his background or the reason why he was admitted into the hospital. They simply accepted him as “just another patient,” as he reveals. Winchell stated that he was a “patient” on the ward A:2, which was most likely the second floor of Cottage A.
His final report provides a number of interesting insights into the operation of the hospital. For example, each patient had an assigned locker, which was designed to store his belongings, along with a bed. The wards consisted of dormitories, and the number of beds in every one was twenty-five, which illustrates a lack of privacy for the patients. There was also a television lounge for them in the common room. The television set, as Winchell stated, was the only form of any contact with the world outside of hospital. This makes it possible to understand the feeling of isolation on the part of the patients.
During his visit, Winchell became acquainted with several patients. One of them was Richard, who “although not normal to many people’s standards, turned out to be one of the friendliest guys” that he had ever met. When at 4:30 pm the journalist was standing in the line for his supper consisting of stew and dumplings, a young patient named Brian introduced himself and asked to sit with him at the table. After this polite introduction, he offered to show Winchell around the hospital grounds. However, the reporter quickly became aware that the meals were a time of “eating, not talking, since most patients worked very hard throughout the day.” Once again, he fails to specify where the patients worked, although it was probably at the Occupational and/or Industrial Therapy, or perhaps even outside the hospital, in the community.
After the meal, Brian took Winchell on a tour throughout the grounds of the hospital, where they came across Richard, the patient he met earlier. Together, they went to a baseball practice and to try for a hospital team called the Lakeshore Lakers.
After the practice was over, they first headed to the Moorhouse, a lounge for the patients, but finding it locked, they headed to the Assembly Hall to watch a movie. But the three companions grew bored quickly of the activity, so they decided to go back to their ward, where they played some card games with other patients. During the game, Winchell made acquaintance with a patient named Richard, not the same person that he had met earlier.
After the game, most of the patients went to bed around 9:30 pm, while Winchell went to talk to the two night staffers on duty. One of them, who had worked at the hospital since the 1950s, recounted the time, when there was still no medication and the patients were threatened with electroshock in case of unruly behaviour. He also elaborated on the history of the institution, informing the journalist that once the grounds of the hospital were “mammoth,” making it strictly self-sufficient. What he didn’t mention was the fact that it relied on the labour of the patients, who were not otherwise compensated for their work.
There were farm animals, fruit trees, and other resources that were responsible for putting the meals on the patients’ tables. Both attendants also informed Winchell that in the past some days had been a “constant fight” with the patients and coming home with injuries was a “common occurrence.” After the conversation, the journalist headed back to his dormitory, and he could barely sleep during the night, thinking about the life he was leading on the outside: his friends, job, and his wife, only to suddenly realize where he was. Winchell left the hospital in the early afternoon of the following day, probably after breakfast.
Winchell later went on to become the editor of the Rapport, a newspaper distributed to the patients and the staff, which circulated on a bi-monthly basis inside the hospital, and he gained the position of the Public Relations Director. Even though his insight does provide a glimpse into the daily life of the patients, it is nevertheless quite limited and ultimately, disappointing. He did not appear to be critical whatsoever of the conditions of the institution and the quality of life and care of the patients, despite the fact that overcrowding and lack of privacy were an everyday reality for the patients.
In a report following his visit, he attempted to question some of the stereotypes associated with mental health patients, but this did not seem to be a sincere attempt. One feels that he would have been able to gain a better insight into the daily life of the patients and operations of the hospital simply by interviewing the patients under the guise that he was wearing during his visit. Winchell’s article is another instance in the long history of the hospital in which its patients are denied voice.
All primary sources retrieved from the Archives for the History of Canadian Psychiatry and Mental Health Services, January 30 and April 21–22, 2005.