Seeking Asylum

A new book offers an unflinching look inside American psychiatric hospitals.

Norah Vincent shot to prominence after passing as a dude and writing about it in her fascinating book Self-Made Man. But pretending to be a guy took its toll, and a depressive spiral led to a quick stint in a mental hospital - a lightbulb moment for the writer. In her latest book, Voluntary Madness, the 40-year-old goes undercover in three different psych wards - Meriwether, a big New York City lockup; St. Luke's, a Midwestern sanatorium; and Mobius, a Southern spa-like haven - to show us what life is like on the inside. Some revelations from her self-imposed head trip:


It's tough to work out when the hospital confiscates your shoelaces because they're a strangling risk, so most patients do the psych-ward shuffle and get their endorphins from pills. After a doctor at St. Luke's took Vincent off meds and gave her a pass to jog in the park, her insurance company stopped payment. If she was well enough to run, they reasoned, she was well enough to leave the hospital.


At St. Luke's, Vincent found that nothing bummed her out more than group therapy with other depressives, so she took solace in eavesdropping on the addicts, who joked around, shared common travails, and actually made progress. "People were there to lance their boils and walk away relieved. They were not, as my fellow depressives and I seemed to be, intent on stewing in their distemper," she says.


After 10 days each at Meriwether and St. Luke's, Vincent fell back into depression. (That's right, the hospitals may have made her worse.) But at Mobius, where alternative therapies thrive (rebirthing, anyone?), Vincent's shrink got to the root of her issues: her molestation as a child. "I had a venereal disease before I was 10," she says. "I'd buried it under a boulder of rage." Vincent was able to release some of that rage and got herself on the path to health. Here's hoping her next book is a survey of five-star Caribbean resorts.


4.3 M Number of annual emergency-room visits brought on by mental disorders.

7 days Duration of the average mental-hospital stay.

100K Number of additional hospital beds needed in the U.S. to meet the demand.