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Speech by Thomas Hester, M.D., Medical Director for Georgia
Department of Mental Health

On August 24, 2000 Dr. Thomas Hester - a psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Georgia Department of Mental Health - came before a conference of 1,000 mental health consumers/survivors/ex-patients. To the astonishment of everyone there, Dr. Hester made a formal apology for the neglect of the cemeteries at Central State Hospital where perhaps as many as 30,000 former patients are buired. He also apologized for some of the ways that state institutions hurt, rather than helped people, and set out a plan for improvement. I don't think there was a dry eye in the hall. Here are his words:

 

The numbers are staggering. Since 1842 when Central State Hospital was established, more than 44,000 consumers have died. Some 30,000 are buried on the grounds with graves marked with a number, in an effort by staff to protect cnofidentiality. The scene was shocking and was described by Joe Ingram (a 50 year Central State employee). He described the cemetery at Central State, "Rows upon rows of numbered, small, rusted markers as far as you can see. No names, just numbers. It must be the most gruesome site in Georgia. Unknown humans, shunned when living, deprived of their very names in death, and literally known only to God." The numbers are staggering. The scene was shocking.

In March of 1997, there was an awakening. There was an awakening when the Consumer Council visited the cemetery site at Central State and saw that not only had these anonymous markers been overgrown by brush and debris, but in fact, many had been removed - removed to make maintenance of this area easier. And that there was no way to reconnect even the unnamed numbers to the human bodies that were buried there.

This awakening that occurred went forth from the Consumer Council to the State. Together staff at Central State, supported by the Division, in partnership with the Consumer Council, worked on the construction of a gate and worked to try to locate as many of the graves as could be located.

The Consumer Movement has taught me that recovery can occur on more than an individual level. That in fact, recovery as I understand it, based on my experience with 12 step recovery is dependent on a peer support process. It is dependent on working with others. I learned from the Consumer Movement that this recovery, if you will, of Consumers as a corporate body, a movement for change, strengthens their recovery by honoring the Consumers that came before - bestowing on them the dignity of human recognition that was taken away by the action of those not in recovery.

I also believe that this recovery as a group has infiltrated the State and the Facility (hospital) system. As I look back at the 12 steps, it seems to me that for the State and Facility system to continue its recovery process, it needs to focus on at least four of the 12 steps:

  • Step Four - "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." Some of those problems in our moral inventory have been the over-control through to use of seclusion and restraints, over-medication, and over-direction. One of our moral shortcomings has been a focus on segregation, isolation, and keeping Consumers apart from their community. Probably the moral shortcoming that is the hardest to understand has been the trampling of human dignity leading to the desecration of graves.
  • Step Five - "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." The State and Facility system have publicly acknowledged in a number of settings including the first National conference, late last year, of facility (state hospital) Superintendents from around the country. I was able to address that group, show the pictures and tell the story of what happened in Georgia and the cemetery. Today I reiterate and admit the exact nature of our wrongs as a Facility system in over-controlling, segregation and desecrating Consumers alive and dead.
  • Step Eight - "Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all." I think we've begun a process of making amends. But I am here today to signal the beginning of making amends through two approaches. One is to humbly say to you that I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of the State of Georgia. I am sorry on behalf of institutions who in the past, despite whatever intentions they may have had, have trampled human spirits, have not allowed recovery to flame. I'm sorry that we've over-used medications. I am sorry that we have over-used intrusive measures like restraint and seclusion.

But in addition to public apology, another part of recovery is going into action. Making amends is not enough. It is not enough just to admit the exact nature of your wrongs - and apologize. And so today I am committing, on behalf of the State of Georgia and the Facility system, to take four actions:

1. The State will pay for the survey to be completed to support the application of the cemetery at Central State to be on the National Historic Register.

2. The State will pay and support the cleaning up of all the graves that are covered under debris and overgrown.

3. The State will help the Consumers' vision of finding a home for the unplaceable markers by constructing planters that lead from the gate to the angel. The planters will allow a place for the iris' to grow that have been collected by Consumers. The iris' are symbolic of the strength of those individuals who lie in the graves that shall forever be unmarked, and to honor each of those markers that can't be placed in these planters.

4. A commitment for perpetual care and maintenance so that we never go back again.

It is essential for the system, the State and the Facility system, to recover and to recognize that by going through these steps of making a searching and fearless moral inventory, that admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, and making amends to those that we have harmed, that we as a system and as providers will realize promises. But in order to keep tose promises and experience those promises as the key factor - and the key factor is identified in Alcoholics Anonymous - "We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it." We can never forget! We cannot afford to forget what happened at the cemetery - what happened to consumers! We must never forget and continue our recovery by abandoning control-efforts and promoting recovery and self-determination; leaving the bonds of segregation and isolation and promoting integration into the community for consumers! And above all . . . Never go back to desecration and recognizing the inherent dignity in humaness. As I've often learned that groups can recover, that "we can do what I can't." I believe the partnership between the State and the Facilities, with the Consumer Movement as two recovering bodies, if you will, can accomplish far more than any group can together.

I humbly ask you forgiveness and commit myself to making these commitments a reality.

Reactions to Dr. Hesters Apology:

Linda Buckner said the apology moved her to tears because, "There have been times that all I needed from the system was for someone to say that they were sorry, but no one ever did. Now they have met us half way and we can begin the healing."

Sherry Olvey, Program Director of the Georgia Consumer Leadership Institute: "It's so powerful. Not only did he apologize, but he also acknowledged the power of recovery and wanting the state to become a recovering body."

Tim McClention, Consumer Specialist at Atlanta Regional Hospital: "An apology is the beginning of showing that they really want to change."

Glenda Brown, Georgia Consumer Council: "We created a moral force through this cemetery restoration work."

To see photographs of the new bronze angel, ornate gate and cleared cemeteries that the Georgia Consumer Council has worked so hard to achieve, click here.

 

 

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