Whiting Forensic Hospital is located in Middletown Connecticut adjacent to Connecticut Valley Hospital. The Hartford Courant

In recent years, a growing outcry has been raised against Connecticut psychiatric hospital, Whiting Forensic Hospital (WFH) in Middletown and the Psychiatric Security Review Board’s (PSRB) priority on protection, not justice.

This outcry, relating to the PSRB/Whiting Hospital was raised by acquittees housed at WFH and the former CVH-Whiting Task Force of which most members agreed to have the PSRB abolished. More recently, the lawmakers on the legislature’s Public Health Committee and Judiciary Committee have heard testimony during marathon public hearings regarding proposals to improve the scandal-plagued state psychiatric hospital which cares for people found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity.

What is a crime? A crime is, first, an act of will. In the beginning is the thought. An animal, for instance, no matter how destructive or vicious, cannot commit a crime. Equally, acts committed by a person who is deprived of thought process, by say a seizure in his/her brain, cannot be called crimes.

When a person is acquitted on the basis of mental disease or defect, a crime has nonetheless been committed and the acquitted person committed it. They have to acknowledge their “crimes,” and if they don’t, then they are in denial. Yes, I was not in my right mind. No, I didn’t have a seizure at the time of crime, the effect was much the same.

Even those of us who are considered “normal” are far from the highest potential as the so-called psychotic is from normal; it is a matter of degree. The higher level a person reaches, the greater his/her ability to deal with his own problems, find peace of mind, and manifest his world in the way that is best for him. Whatever level the acquittee is at or their conditions within their clinically stable mental state, we merely say that by helping them to understand themselves better we will be raising their consciousness to where they will be better able to accept their psychological disorder successfully.

PSRB acquittees at Whiting Forensic Hospital deserve a better system. Beyond the recent laws changed regarding discharge process, according to some revised state statutes by lawmakers, more still needs to be done by lawmakers to propose more bills. Like Senate Bill 450, to improve WFH and abolish the board. The CVH-Whiting Task Force made clear in its report that Whiting fails many if not all of the individuals under its care.

Now the notion is we all need protection, that is why we have the Psychiatric Security Review Board, created in 1985. It exists, in substantial part, because of the John Hinckley verdict. Only two states have PSRBs after Arizona terminated theirs. Connecticut’s and Oregon’s still exist.

The board exists for one purpose – protection. CGS 17a-593 states the board’s primary concern is the protection of society. Not justice, not fairness, and certainly not recovery. It’s a good argument to say the people in society are protected, I guess, but who’s protecting acquittees? Behind the care of WFH walls, it’s pretty common for members of Connecticut’s communities to think of us acquittees as the most dangerous and criminally insane. Their view is wrong. It’s just a totally wrong view.

We’re just good people trying to get better. The negative view of patients under Connecticut’s PSRB – patients in the forensic mental health system – is ingrained in most of Connecticut’s communities. We can do better to change that perspective by educating the people of Connecticut about the state’s mental health system. To better understand it, legislators need to continue their commitments to improve Whiting and propose more public health bills. Whiting Forensic Hospital lives in the Stone Age with no modern-day technology to help assist in their recovery/treatment of its patients under its care.

Colonial Americans referred to the mentally ill as lunatics. The word lunatic is derived from the root word lunar, meaning moon. It was believed that insanity was caused by the full moon at the time of a baby’s birth or a baby sleeping under the light of a full moon. Lunatics were considered to be possessed by the devil and were taken off the streets and locked away.

Twenty-first century society is not quite so harsh in our dealings with mental illness, although much is still not understood about the collection of diseases and conditions that we lump together under that moniker. We all have peculiar traits that define us as individuals. We talk to ourselves or our dogs, sing loudly in the car or check the burners on the stove twice before leaving home. The difference between a peculiarity and an illness is a matter of severity. Mental illness is a broad definition. Basically, a disorder of the mind causes abnormal behavior. That could describe a lot of people.  You may interact with people every day who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and not even realize it!

The practice of psychology and psychiatry will not create a truly mentally healthy society. As it currently stands, mental health is collective. The occupation of clinical psychologist and psychiatrist is to adjust the mind to be functional in a dysfunctional society. What is called “mental health” is the ability to function with that which is dysfunctional. Of course, clinical psychology and psychiatry will defend themselves by stating that they are not in the business of philosophy or religion – they are in the business of making people functional. The problem is that these clinicians become the spokespersons or standard bearers for what society believes about the mind, and importantly, human identity.

Hal Bassow is an author and an inpatient at Whiting Forensic Hospital who has more than a decade and a half in Connecticut’s mental health system.