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Inside The Mental: Silence, Stigma, Psychiatry, and LSD

by Kay Parley

After suffering a breakdown in 1948, Kay Parley was placed in Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Mental Hospital, known colloquially as “the Mental.” Nine months later, her illness never properly diagnosed but under control, she was released. While at the hospital, Parley reconnected with her father, a resident mental patient she had not seen in 18 years. She also met (for the first time) her maternal grandfather, another patient who had been living at the hospital for decades.

AprilReviews_The-MentalParley became so attached to the hospital and so fascinated with the treatment of mental illness that in 1956 she returned to Weyburn as a psychiatric nurse. In short order, she agreed to participate in LSD experiments, initially involving just staff but later incorporating patients as well. Parley describes this period during the 1950s and ’60s as “a glory day for psychiatry and for psychiatric patients.” Parley feels that LSD research was stopped long before its true potential was tapped.

To buttress that opinion – which is not shared by most in the medical community – Parley, now in her nineties, has written this short memoir. As a client of the institution, Parley was lucky. She was among a small percentage of Weyburn’s patients to receive careful, ground-breaking treatment; most were just warehoused and allowed to sink further into their illnesses.

The vast majority of Parley’s recollections are riveting. She recalls the full spectrum of her experience at the Mental, a hospital that opened in 1921 with much promise, became notoriously ineffectual by the cash-strapped 1930s, and daringly inventive in the 1950s, under the leadership of Dr. Humphrey Osmond. The storied institution was demolished in 2009.

However, Parley’s memoir leaves the reader craving more detail on many of the issues it raises, including the effectiveness of LSD treatments and Parley’s own recurring illness, which has been labelled at different times as multiple personality, schizophrenia, and manic-depressive psychosis. (That final condition was what her father suffered from.)

After several decades of institutionalization, Parley’s father was released, built a rustic cottage near the hospital, and lived there with his daughter, a newly graduated psychiatric nurse. This relationship really merits a book of its own; sadly, Inside The Mental offers only the sketchiest outline of their father/daughter bond.