Ward 81 - Demise of Institutional Services

Ward 81 was the all-women's ward within the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution most known as the location of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This series of images documents the hospital prior to its demolition in 2008.

I initially started this project with the idea that capitalist greed was the driving force for the breakdown and demise of institutional services. I was alarmed to learn that women who need help for mental illness cannot get it. Many institutions that were once set up to help those afflicted with mental illness are not there due to the lack of funding, causing the demise of institutional services that we are now seeing both metaphorically and physically.

Entering Ward 81, I found each room vibrated with pastel colors, some walls even adorned with curiously upbeat art from the patients. All this beauty was contrasted with a dense chalky air, earthy odor and constant crackling of debris beneath my feet. The idea of enclosure and detachment serving as a safe haven to women in need was perplexing. I am not a spiritual person, but I felt so enlightened from the experience that it was hard for me to truly decipher the role Ward 81 played in the patients’ lives. I tried to imagine the different interactions between the orderlies and the patients in this surreal environment. I wanted to know the stories of the women who lived in these rooms.

Later I sought out Mary Ellen Mark, who in 1976 poignantly documented the personalities that endured Ward 81. She is the only person I knew outside of the hospital staff to have contact with the women of Ward 81. I was compelled to ask her if she felt that shutting down the ward was a good thing. Mary Ellen told me she didn’t know. I then asked her if she felt the patients benefited from the isolation. She paused with a deep sigh and in my opinion some deep personal doubt, then quietly stated that she simply didn’t know. I was stunned. Not by what Mary Ellen said, but what she didn’t say. My mind started to open to the possibility that these institutions were not the safest places for women. Subsequent conversations and research just convinced me more that my original, passionate opinion was flawed.

Maybe, just maybe, this is one case where capitalist greed got lucky… women will not be subjected to the inhumane practices that many asylums have been guilty of. After all, Mary Ellen could not say that institutional treatment had a positive effect on the women she photographed in this very ward. We have all heard about the abuses that women have suffered at the hands of orderlies, doctors and other patients; perhaps capitalism got this one right and women in the future will benefit for capitalism’s timely missteps.

Ward 81 is gone, and metaphorically so are the stereotypes associated with women who are afflicted with mental illness. My intention in publishing these images is to present the physical crumbling and decaying cells, which represent the end of old, corrupt, poorly-run asylums and bring about a sense of closure for the women of Ward 81.In the end, I can’t say where exactly the many sleepless nights I spent pondering what happened to the women of Ward 81 have taken me. I simply do not know. If, by chance, it helps even just one woman and her family, I rest my head with a renewed sense of hope.

Bill Diodato