Between Two Worlds Exhibit

Between Two Worlds Exhibit

By Chris Dooley, Health Historian

1970s black and white photograph of group of office workers or professional having a meeting or discussion in office setting

Deinstitutionalization had profound effects on the lives of front-line mental health workers.  As the big institutions closed in the 1960s and 1970s, many followed their former patients into the community, working as community mental health nurses, with social services agencies, or on the acute-care psychiatric wards that opened in general hospitals. These were fraught times when mental health workers faced professional and economic dislocation uncertainty.  As jobs disappeared in the old “asylum towns” many were forced to uproot their families and move elsewhere.  New contexts also offered new challenges, and workers were obliged to develop different skills and approaches, to re-invent themselves as mental health care providers, and to re-examine patient-practitioner relationships.

Taking account of these dislocations helps us to see practitioners not simply as instruments of a bureaucratized health and welfare system, but as individuals implicated in complex relationships with the people and systems they served.  By paying attention to their own words, we can appreciate that many imagined themselves not simply as professional caregivers, but also as protectors, allies, advocates and friends to those for whom they cared.

This exhibit presents the recollections of front-line mental health workers from Manitoba and Saskatchewan – primarily Registered Psychiatric Nurses – of their experiences working through this period of rapid mental health reform.  These reflections are excerpted from interviews conducted in connection with a much larger oral history project on psychiatric nursing in Prairie Canada.  Employing my training as a historian, I aim to give voice to practitioners who were themselves deinstitutionalized, whose careers began in the 1950s and 1960s at large in-patient facilities and who later worked in community roles.  This is not a well-ordered set of memories, but rather a series of recollections and personal reflections, some of which challenge commonly-held professional stereotypes and assumptions about deinstitutionalization.

This exhibit is based on the following article:
Chris Dooley, “‘The older staff, myself included, we were pretty institutionalized ourselves’: Authority and insight in practitioner narratives of psychiatric deinstitutionalization in Prairie Canada,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 29:1 (Fall 2012), 101-124.