ST. PETER — The ingredients for Minnesota’s mental health reforms of the 1940s and ‘50s, according to author Susan Bartlett Foote, were committed political leaders, passionate citizen advocates and a strong press.
She spoke about each’s role in paving the way for the state’s modern mental health care system during a book tour stop in St. Peter Thursday.
Her visit to town was fitting given the ties between St. Peter and her recently-released book, “The Crusade for Forgotten Souls.”
The book details Minnesota’s mental health reform movement between 1946 and 1954, from the citizen advocates who started the process, to the governor with a sympathetic ear, to the journalists who exposed brutal conditions at the state’s mental institutions. In researching the movement, Foote described hitting a “historian’s jackpot” when she came upon the personal journals of Engla Schey, an attendant in a state mental hospital whose observations provided a catalyst for the reforms.
“I may be the official author of this book but I think she’s the author too,” Foote said.
The eventual reforms passed by the state Legislature in 1949, led by Gustavus Adolphus alum Gov. Luther Youngdahl, addressed poor conditions and staffing. Youngdahl’s college days at Gustavus aren’t the book's only ties to St. Peter. Nicollet County Historical Society Executive Director Jessica Becker said the connections between the two were part of why Foote was invited to speak.
“There are a lot of community ties as we really started digging into this,” she said.
The city had the state’s first mental hospital and still has a security hospital, which Foote refers to in the book’s epilogue.
She noted funds to improve conditions at the security hospital were overlooked in the 2016 legislative session. The security hospital ended up receiving $70.3 million the next year for an expansion and renovation and $22.9 million to hire additional staff.
From discussions with folks in St. Peter, Foote said the funding should help. Earlier in the day she visited the historical society’s exhibit, “State of Mind,” on the history of St. Peter’s facility.
Mary Rosenthal, originally from Mankato, drove down from her home in St. Paul to see Foote. She said she “couldn’t put the book down.”
Its depiction of the political climate, particularly how Youngdahl and the rest achieved their reforms, are a good example of what people who care enough about a problem are capable of, she said.
“To me I just found the book so exciting to read about what people can do when they really decide that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” she said.
In the book and in her presentation Thursday, Foote made clear the crusade’s vision which she wrote about wasn’t fully achieved. Mental health advocates describe Minnesota’s current mental health system as lacking at best.
Foote said no one has a magic bullet, but she hopes the book shows people the power of citizen advocacy.
In quoting Youngdahl at the conclusion of her talk, she said, “Protection of the patient depends on our vigilance.”