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Book explores 1940s Minnesota mental health reform

St. Peter Herald - 6/6/2018

The catalysts for a 1940s reform of the state's mental health system were ordinary people.

That is one of the surprising lessons Susan Bartlett Foote found when she was researching her book "The Crusade for Forgotten Souls." Foote will sign copies and talk about her book at 7 p.m.June 14 at the Senior Center, Room 219 at the St. Peter Community Center.

Foote, a professor emerita from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, had the story fall on her head, literally.

"I was cleaning out my son's closet and this paper bag was on top of the closet and it fell and hit me on the head," she said.

Its contents included a scrapbook with clippings from the 1940's Minneapolis Tribune, speeches and papers from her former father-in-law. The Rev. Arthur Foote, who died in 1999, was a Unitarian pastor and one of the instigators of the reform movement.

His papers led Foote to Luther Youngdahl, who was elected governor in 1946 for the first time. His biography once mentioned Engla Schey, who was the true catalyst of it all.

"I see her as a hero from an unlikely background with no advantages, just an intense desire to make things better," Susan Bartlett Foote said.

Motivated because her father had voluntarily committed himself at Fergus Falls State Hospital, Engla Schey worked as an aide at Anoka, Rochester and Hastings state hospitals. She chronicled her experiences and the conditions in a series of diaries. Foote found them at the house of a great-, great-niece.

The search for information on this pivotal time "was something I couldn't put down," she said.

Foote weaves together the data and background, such as a U.S.Public Health Service report from the '30s calling Minnesota's state hospitals among the worst in the country, with the personal accounts from Schey and others.

It was personal accounts that spurred Youngdahl to craft a reform package, Foote said.

"He was a necessary political leader, but he didn't come to the table without all the effort of these ordinary people to persuade him that the issue could be politically successful," she said.

But once he was on board, Youngdahl, a 1919 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, was committed.

"He really brought an incredible depth of spirit to the cause," she said. "He was really motivated by a strong view about the value of each human being."

At the time, that was a rare view to hold about people with mental illness and disabilities.

The reform package passed in 1949 were meant to take the hospitals from a place of constant overcrowding, deplorable physical plant conditions and low staffing. On one front, it gave guarantees for care of those in the seven state hospitals, everything from improved diet to true psychiatric services and therapy. And it redesigned the system to be accountable to a commissioner of public health in the hopes of making a patient-focused system.

"That's why the story resonates today, because we have not achieved those goals," Foote said.


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