Willowbrook: A Human Warehouse

Willowbrook: A Human Warehouse

Geraldo Rivera’s expose on conditions at the Willowbrook State School was utterly eye-opening. So often throughout the footage, I was struck by the hopelessness and the despair that was clear throughout the Willowbrook facility. These feelings were made evident through the lack of clothing, the extremely limited eating time, and the complete lack of activities or curriculum, among other things. Further, these aspects were only exaggerated by the sever understaffing. I could hardly believe it when I heard that the patient to attendant ratio was supposed to be around four to one, but was instead between 30 and 40 to one. William Bronston who worked as a physician at Willowbrook for many years aptly labeled Willowbrook as little more than a “human warehouse.”

What made these conditions seem even worse was the contrast between Willowbrook and the Californian centers. The children at the Californian centers were much happier, and this seemed to be a direct result of the different implementations of these centers. They had clean facilities, a personal health and academic plan for each individual, and they maintained family contact and connection as best they could. On a larger scale, this all was due to the fact that California invested more in their department of education than in large-scale institutions like Willowbrook. This choice definitely paid off for them.

Still the most notable difference between these two approaches was eloquently stated in the Rivera expose, “…the main difference between the approach of New York and that of California to the problem of caring for the mentally retarded is they treat the retarded as people, we treat them as something less.” I appreciated how this statement put so much emphasis on the humanity of patients. As I think about our discussions these past two weeks, so many of the atrocities boiled down to health professionals not recognizing the humanity of their patients. If we could only consistently get that right, so many of these ethical violations might never have occurred. It is now our responsibility to learn from these past failures and do our very best to prevent anything like them from ever happening again.

11 thoughts on “Willowbrook: A Human Warehouse

  1. I completely agree that this piece highlighted a big theme in regards to ethical concerns in our discussion and analysis of research, institutionalization, and experimentation in history. This theme being the inconsiderate treatment of (often) minority populations as a result of health care professionals failing to recognize the humanity in these people.

    I think that institutions like the Willowbrook State School were (and are) allowed to persist because the children placed in these schools were placed here and were not checked up on frequently, ensuring proper care. Further, when we disregard the mentally disabled, or any other population of people — whether that be 2 or 200 — we set a precedent for treatment. It will take educating our health care professionals, family members, government officials, neighbors, etc. to change this precedent.

  2. It is a vehement fact that ethical considerations and concerns have played a big role in the development of medical research. The mere thought of the horrible conditions at Willow Brook State School is astonishing, even as many of those who were running it knew that it was gruesome and inhumane. I find it abhorrent that those medical professionals, who have been tasked with the welfare and safety of the mentally retarded patients, instead abused, and somewhat neglected them. While essential intentions were very good, the sever understanding, overcrowding, neglect, and overall disobedience of medical practice led to the stark contrast between it and the California institution.

    Institution is a very polarizing issue, as ins utilization has been implemented incorrectly at various instances in history. As brought up in other posts, the humanity of the patients is valued at institutions like the California one, where progress and treatment can be made for the betterment of society. In our pursuit of employment in a healthcare field, we must make sure that institutions like these are well-funded, staffed, cared for, and contain the adequate supplies need to treat their respective patients. AS long as we do that, the many gross ethical violations of the Wilowbrook School will not be repeated.

  3. Instituions have always been a rather controversial manner and the treatment of people at the Willow Brook State School is just one of the many reasons why. I completely agree with your statement about how the root of this problem comes from the fact that health care professionals fail to see the humanity of their patients and, as a result, treat them as inferior subjects. The health care field is founded off the idea of wanting to improve the lives of others, but by health care professionals treating their patients in such an unethical manner we are completely negating this concept.

    Like you said, it is important for us to look at these past events and learn from them. There should not be a difference in the respect given to patients versus the doctors. If we treat others with proper care we will only benefit from the results. Research and health has no value if it is founded off unethical principles.

  4. I completely agree with you on identifying the humanity of patients. In the past weeks, this class has taught me that patients cannot be viewed as just another object or case. Disabilities do not make people any less human. Patients are humans and we are to treat them as such.
    To provide a strong basis for suitable healthcare, facilities must have enough faculty to care for all the patients and have access to proper resources to give the best possible care. For this to happen, funding and planning must be carefully distributed, with focus on what will be best for citizens of the area.
    I wish I could say that health professionals learn from these mistakes and are now completely aware of how to properly care for patients, but events like this still occur today, and will likely continue into the future. I believe that it is important to frequently be reminded of events like this because as health professionals, we must remember that patients have entrusted their lives into our hands. It is our job to supply them with the best care for their situation. By keeping humanity, funding, and planning at the forefront of care, I believe that ethical violations will be less common.

  5. I completely agree with your statement on how we have to see the humanity of our patients, because we become so engrossed in our research that we see them as subjects with no value. We forget that these are people with family, children, and everyday problems. This especially relates to the mentally ill. They are not treated humanely. They are seen as weak and invaluable to society. We forget that they are people too just like us. Studies have shown that this stigma and hostility towards those with mental illness have had negative side affects to their health.

  6. Your statement about the humanity of patients is so well put. If the state, or the society in general, had viewed these mentally disabled patients as human beings, the horrible conditions at the Willowbrook State School would not have been accepted. I was truly heartbroken when the documentary showed how these patients suffered: no decent clothing, no hygienic environment, no activities to do; these patients were just being left on the ground, with not enough staffs to look after them. On the contrary, the facilities at California treated these patients humanely; they knew that these patients had feelings and thoughts, just like everyone else. The patients there were given proper care, education, and trainings, which might even assist them to live semi-independently in the future. All of these were based on the principle that these mentally disabled patients are human beings, not subjects, not something that should be hidden out of sight or be discarded. This is a principle that everyone – not just healthcare professionals – should always keep in mind.

  7. I support the importance of emphasizing the humanity of patients, and just of people in general. The superiority complex of the doctors and researchers that violated their subject pool’s basic human rights was the cause of such ethical neglect. If each and every person’s life and soul were valued equally, and not prioritized based off ability, race, religion, gender, etc. then there would not be this problem of ethical violations that can be seen so frequently in history. The Willowbrook State School was a prime example of people’s humanities being ignored and severely disrespected. It was horrifying to see the conditions these patients lived in, and is a stark reminder of the importance of remembering people’s humanity.

  8. I agree completely with the above posts about the importance of understanding the humanity of patients. Sometimes, we tend to dehumanize the people that we don’t understand or can’t empathize with. We shouldn’t stigmatize people who are different or mentally ill. In fact, those are the people who need extra care and empathy. It is very disheartening to see how some human beings are treated and how little effort some of these institutions put into understanding and empathizing with patients.

  9. The Willowbrook State School story is one I will certainly carry in mind when I become a medical professional. Stories such as these are as shocking as they are sad, but what is most important is that they are remembered and learned from. I think the most important thing you said in your post, fellow blogger, is that the humanity of the people who were put in Willowbrook State School was completely ignored. For medical professionals, it may be easier to deal with the amount of sadness, illness, and death they may come across by trying to dehumanize the patients. However, in cases such as this one, when the idea that these patients are actual people is completely ignored, the purpose of the practice is lost and the work conducted becomes invalid. As doctors and leaders in the medical field it is essential that we keep the humanity of our patients in mind at all times.

  10. Watching the Willowbrook video was absolutely horrifying. Not because of the special needs people, who often have some of the purest souls, but because of the conditions they were kept in. Hearing the moans and seeing the brooding darkness in Willowbrook was a stark contrast to the sound of giggling and bright colors in the institutions of California. One of the big reasons of this contrast, similar to what we have discussed, was the lack of reflection and care that government officials put into making financial decisions that would so greatly affect institutions like Willowbrook. Lack of funding caused not only limited access to resources like clothes, but also understaffing. Overall, the physical environment of the institution was not suitable, stimulating, or beneficial to the needs of these people. Besides the physical environment, a loving and caring emotional environment was not provided. As easy as it would be to blame everything on money, the emotional capacities of caregivers are to blame as well. The doctor in California so obviously cared and loved his patients just by the way he held the little girl w/ down-syndrome. The quote you included perfectly sums up why so many ethical violations arise. Caregivers don’t look past a patient labelled with a problem, while officials in high places don’t look closely at the impact decisions will have on populations on a personal level.

  11. I think that what happened at Willowbrook is very sad and disappointing. However, I’m sure that the attention that Willowbrook received helped pave the way for better funding and care for people with certain disabilities today. I honestly, believe that the horrible conditions at Willowbrook existed because leaders of the state and city may have had some kind of bias towards people with disabilities, which resulted in low funding to the institution. I honestly don’t believe the care givers were to blame, they tired to do they’re jobs with the minimal resources they had. Even so, some of the caregivers could have mistreated or not properly taken care of the patients, but I believe the majority of the workers actually tried their best to help the patients.

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