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Conditions in Mental Hospitals during the War

Jac. K. Schroeder worked at the Selkirk Mental Hospital. The treatment of some of the patients appalled him. One of his very first duties was to bathe the patients.


“When the first two [patients] had finished their baths I drained the bath tubs. That's when the supervisor walked in and immediately stopped the draining. “One water is good for six patients,” he said. When I questioned that, he said, “If you run fresh water for every patient you'll be bathing all day. You have until noon to complete the bathing…. By the time I changed the water after the sixth patient, a thick grimy layer of soapsuds floated on top. My whole nature rebelled, especially when a patient really enjoying the water dipped his head under the foamy dirty mess and blew bubbles with delight. It was disgusting, a glaring demonstration of man's inhumanity to man. For that day I stayed within the supervisor's directives but my mind worked overtime for a way to change the system. These people like us, were entitled to clean bath water, to splashing in refreshing water with its healing balm, and experiencing an invigorating respite from their week's dull routine of walking the halls.”


The next day the supervisor assigned Schroeder to give the patients their weekly shave.


“I found the razor blade quite dull. When I inquired about it I was told that the blades were adequate for the job. The inmates didn't need a close shave [the supervisor said] because they were not going on a date! I tried to give the patient a good, clean shave, but the blade was so dull I felt I was pulling out his beard instead of cutting it.”           


“When the regular attendant called for a second patient to take his chair, a healthy, robust man of about 40 sat down and stared straight ahead. The attendant commanded him to put his head back on the headrest. The patient continued to sit motionless, staring into space. Instead of asking a second time or personally moving his head back, the attendant struck him with his fist under his chin. The patient jerked his head back against the head rest and the attendant started shaving.”


“I saw tears rolling down the patient's cheek but he didn't make a sound. The other patients standing by seemed unaffected. Nobody complained, but I was very disturbed. Such abusive treatment of an inmate by a long-time employee spoke of justice gone awry. It revealed a deplorable absence of conscience for caring, for rehabilitating the mentally handicapped and the emotionally disturbed. Compassion was missing.”


“Before leaving work that day I asked to see the supervisor for a sharpening stone and some used razor blades. I meant to sharpen these during the evening. Another CO had the same idea, so the two of us spent the whole evening sharpening blades. We were determined to offer the patients a better, care-free, smooth shave at future shaving sessions.” [ASP, 169]


While not every CO had such graphic experiences, each one knew that the patients at mental hospitals deserved much better treatment and care. When these COs returned home after the war, the stories they told to their families and churches helped inspire the building of the Eden Mental Health Centre.

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