Not a week goes by that Lucy Winer doesn’t think back to when she was a girl of 17 sitting on the floor in a state issued dress of the female violent ward in Kings Park State Hospital not knowing if she would ever live to tell the tale that would be the catalyst for the movie of her experience there as well as the story of former patients, workers and the state of mental health care today.
It was 1967 and Kings Park State Hospital was the second largest mental health institution in New York. At its peak it warehoused more than 9,000 patients. Winer, now a veteran documentary filmmaker will show her movie, Kings Park at the Stony Brook Film Festival on July 25.
“Never could I have ever imagined that I would make a move like this one day. It is an amazing experience,” said Winer.
The film would bring Winer full circle, back to the hospital grounds and into the buildings that once held her. Coincidentally, Winer’s eventual release from Kings Park hospital was predicated on her enrolling at Stony Brook University where she enrolled as a theater major.
“Back in those days Kings Park was very frightening. When you were admitted to Kings Park you entered another reality one which you had no way of leaving,” said Winer. “You had no recourse, anything could be done to you. You also had no access to doctors or even nurses. It was very regimented, very strict. People often say the grounds were so beautiful. That wasn’t true for everybody. For many of the patients there was no access to the grounds.”
Part of the process of making the movie was talking with former patients and visiting the now abandoned property and buildings with them, some of whom could not bring themselves to even walk up to the buildings they had once occupied.
“Every time I heard the story of another former patient it helped me so much. People suffered things I never had to go through. I think these exchanges helped us to help each other,” she said.
According to Winer that is part of the power of the film. The purpose of the movie, says Winer is not to expose anything or get back at anyone, but a healing process.
“I’ve walked through the hospital with many people and I learned something new each time. I learned something about myself each time,” she said.
Winer doesn’t just focus on the patients though, she recalls the workers, some of whom were kind and caring. According to Winer, there were few doctors to care for the thousands of patients there.
“A kind staff member could make a big difference., maybe not the norm, but they were definitely there,” said Winer
In the ten years that Winer has been working on the film some of the employees she has come in contact with have gotten on in years, some have moved, some passed away. Many remain and many she considers friends, mentioning Pat Stransky, Richard Farrell and King Pedlar, among others.
“I have kept in touch with most of them. These were deep connections. I consider almost everyone I have interacted with a friend.”
Winer’s journey into the past has brought her healing as well as an education on the treatment of the mentally ill today. Winer says she had little understanding of the mental health care system before she began the movie. Today she sees a greater understanding and acceptance of people who suffer from mental illness but is pained to know that the largest providers of treatment for the mentally ill now are jails and penitentiaries.
“The jails and the prisons have replaced the state hospitals. I find that tragic,” says Winer. “To make matters worse there is a very real danger that Congress will vote away many of our remaining supports and services. They are talking about cutting Medicaid way back with serious consequences for people with mental illness. I couldn’t have gotten out of the hospital without Social Security disability. I needed that to get on my feet.”
The process of making the movie has been cathartic and gratifying for Winer. By visiting her past and connecting with others who have a shared experience she had shed light on a problem that could use some illumination. Out of it all, it is the human connections that the filmmaker found the most gratifying.
“I would say meeting the people I’ve met in order to make the film, hearing their stories and taking the film out and showing it at hospitals, mental health care centers, universities- anywhere there is a need to learn about the past and better understand the present and create solutions for the future. I love doing that.”
The ten day Stony Brook Film Festival opens July 21 at the Staller Center at Stony Brook Universlty. Tickets for the Monday evening showing of Kings Park have sold out however stand-by tickets may be available Monday evening. Movie goers should arrive at 6:15 p.m. and wait for available seats to go on sale at 6:45 p.m.