Lucy Winer is the documentarist behind King’s Park, a film that explores the impact of the Kings Park mental institution on her life, the lives of its patients and employees, and the community as a whole. The final section of the film discusses the consequences of Kings Park’s closing, which resulted in the placement of thousands of mentally ill individuals in prisons.
AMW: Kings Park doesn’t just focus on your personal experience at King’s Park or the different patients who resided there. It also talks about how the American mental health system has changed over time. What motivated that structure?
LW: Well, the film is divided into three parts: my story, the story of the hospital, and what happens to the hospital after it closes in 1996. And, initially, I started out making a very personal story--what had happened to me--to try and reconnect with a part of my past that was very deeply buried. The way that I got out of the hospital was to put up a wall and just lock everything that happened at the hospital and before behind it, and there came a point in my life where I needed to take down that wall and integrate parts of my life that had been buried away. At a certain point in the process of making the film, my interest went from my story to the story of the hospital itself. I really needed to understand what this institution was, why it was built, what it had been like in different periods, what it been like for the people who worked there, other patients, family members, and what had happened when it closed--what had then become public mental health care in the community.
AMW: So, moving on a little bit, I had previously been unaware that so many mental patients had been taken care of by the penal system. How does this care system compare with the past system?
LW: You know, people ask me that question all the time. The reaction is “okay, you’re saying it was really horrible at the hospital, but then you’re also saying it’s really horrible in jail for people with mental illness, so what do you want?” Well, guess what, those aren’t the only two options that exist. Those are very efficient options if you’re talking about control. But if we’re talking about healing, they’re not. So, what’s worse, a state hospital or jail? It’s not really a worthwhile question.
AMW: Because they are really similar in a lot of respects, especially in terms of confinement and a lack of a sort of human connection.
LW: And a lack of treatment and a lack of empathy. Both structures judge people with mental illness, and that’s something I really dwell on in the film.
AMW: So then, this focus on efficiency rather than really helping these people on an individual level in terms of treatment and one-on-one attention, do you think that it has a lot to do with American attitudes towards mental health and the mentally ill? Do you think that the general public feels that the mentally ill need to be put away and corrected? Or is it that there is just a disconnect between the public and what is actually going on?
LW: I think there is a big disconnect. I think most people are very personally touched by mental illness but they haven’t realized it yet. And it’s not until it really slams you in the face that you realize it, and even then, people can compartmentalize their experience and put it away. And that’s because of stigma. So, I really think there is a huge disconnect, and I think education and story-telling are so critical right now. I think that we are going to recognize how many of us are touched and affected, and we’ll deal less in isolation with these issues.
AMW: Do you think that in addition to education and a general understanding of the problems that these people face, the law can either remedy the things it has done in the past that have really hurt the mentally ill or fix the current system.
LW: I do. Of course. I think a lot of key issues deserve a lot of attention. It’s great to close down abusive institutions, but we need to be very thoughtful about how we do it so that people aren’t tossed out. I think that maybe we’ve made it too difficult for people to receive treatment when they’re very ill, but we can’t go back to what existed when I was young where people could just be put away so easily. So, I think the law follows from education and follows from thought, and I really, really think we need to talk and rediscover what it is we need instead of constantly being in reaction to budget cuts and crises.
AMW: Have you found local organizations or groups of people who have made things better? Have you come across an exemplary institution or a way of working that you think provides hope for a better future?
LW: You see, I think I see that all the time. You know, I see very imperfect organizations and people, like myself, who are really making a difference in people’s lives. The third part of the film doesn’t just go to jail, but it also goes to community organizations. Those organizations may not be the places you’d want to go if you have a serious mental illness, but I think I might want to because people are getting help, people are finding ways to reenter the community. By hanging out in a peer-run organization and observing clubhouse model, I saw people re-embrace their lives and get sober. I watched people resume employment, and that’s huge. My message is partly remembering the human beings are involved. It’s not about getting too carried away with the theories and the policies, but remembering that this is human-based. I’m one of the humans.
AMW: Right. I think this film is so poignant and has affected so many people because you can talk from a personal perspective. Thank you so much, Lucy Winer, for meeting with me. I look forward to seeing more of your work.