The Unitarian Effort in Helping to Reform Minnesota’s Mental Institutions 1946-1954

by Rev. Barbara F. Meyers

I have recently read a fabulous book that shows what committed religious people can do to reform mental health practices.  It is The Crusade for Forgotten Souls – Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions 1946-1954, by Susan Bartlett Foote, university of Minnesota Press, 2018. 

It tells the fabulous story of how Unitarians in Minnesota helped to reform mental institutions in the mid-1900’s.  After pioneering work for documenting what was happening in Minnesota’s mental hospitals by members of his congregation who were horrified by snake-pit like conditions, the Rev. Arthur Foote minister of the Unity Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota was able to get the ear and the trust of the governor of Minnesota, Luther Youngdahl, and mental health reform became Youngdahl’s most important political policies.  

The reforms dealt with more funding, lower case loads, better training for workers in the hospitals, getting rid of restraints, better food and more social programs.  The reforms also involved people from the public visiting patients at the hospitals and bringing the true stories of what was happening into the public view – speaking truth to power.  Rev. Foote was very involved in all of the presentations to the governor and legislature to get these reforms identified and passed.

However, many of these reforms were later overturned by tightfisted conservative politicians and bureaucrats after Youngdahl left office.  But, as Susan Bartlett Foote points out, many important lessons emerged and live on:

  • it gave voice to the voiceless;
  • it helped define a modern mental health system to deliver care;
  • it showed what principled advocates could accomplish. 

Important considerations for success were:

  • effective political leadership is essential;
  • realize that the policy process is fickle;
  • trusted voices of citizen advocates are important;
  • the press can play an important and constructive role in shaping public discourse. 

The book’s most important conclusion is a quote from Luther Youngdahl: “The protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.” 

This book should be required reading for all who are interested in mental health reform, and especially for Unitarian Universalists.

I have written to the author and hope to talk with her about the importance of this book to our future.   As a side note, Arthur Foote was the former father-in-law of Susan Bartlett Foote and she came by most of the information in the book from notes that she found in a closet of her house that he had left there.  She also did masterful research on the issue in many archives.  A first class book! 

I wish to thank Janet Holden for pointing me at this book.  I notice that there is a review of the book in the March 2019 issue of The UU World.

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