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Voices / Counterpoint

Can the Retreat restore healing creative programs?

If the psychiatric hospital can look to its past, patients could benefit. So could Brattleboro area artists.

Kelley Louise Murray is receiving support from Health Care and Rehabilitation Services and, like so many others, is an unemployed art therapist. She also serves on the Consumer Advisory Committee at the Brattleboro Retreat.


RE: “Why now for voter-approved funding for the arts?” [Viewpoint, Mar. 6]:

Arlene Distler took note of the “effort of the growing number of artists and appreciators of arts” in the community. I am grateful for her making these familiar statements, but I must add that there is more to the story.

We live in a large town abundant with residential artists. And, indeed, these people are “starving artists.”

What strikes me is that there is no mention of the city’s largest employer, the Brattleboro Retreat, and the absence of therapeutic activities.

I serve on the Consumer Advisory Committee, and I have been a patient at the Retreat several times. Let me tell you, there is, in my mind, little to do in the way of creative expression.

Why? You might ask. The CEO has slashed funds for therapeutic activities in favor of renovating the units and adding more beds.

* * *

Allow me to digress. There was an era when the Retreat offered an enormous number and array of activities that actually took disease away.

In the mid-18th century, the healing arts flourished at the Retreat. The hospital at that time was designed as a bio-psyche-social facility concerned with the patients’ care in a healthy and holistic manner.

Many of us are familiar with the “water cure.” Patients traveled in horse and buggy from New York and beyond to Vermont just to relish the cold waters of the river.

Times changed. Following the water cure, the Retreat provided gardening, picnics, walking, boating, dances, games, farming, crafts, reading, writing, and theater.

And that was not all. Other activities included organized indoor and outdoor games, and of course, swimming, among others.

In the gym, there were films, stage projections, dances, and parties. The lounge opened its doors to theatrics of various kinds, music and singing, and creative dancing.

The lifestyle provided socializing around the fireplace and group parties.

The game room had a record player for dancing and listening, ping pong, and table games.

The workshop offered creative art projects as well as decorating pastry and popping corn.

The pool room, also indoors, provided bowling, three pool tables, and a necessary punching bag.

Finally, there was more to be had in the summer: softball, tennis, badminton, croquet, golf, music, and dancing on the lawn. The Retreat made good use of the environment and engaged in nature walks and hikes.

* * *

Today, the hospital lacks a vigorous expressive and healing program. So, what happens behind locked doors? Not much. It lacks in physical activities, intellectual groups, and the means to develop healthy relationships.

As a patient holding a master’s degree in art therapy, I support any movement in re-establishing the milieu as it was — and perhaps better. Let us bring the therapeutic activities and the healing arts back to life.

I believe that the Retreat’s priorities are misguided. The community of Brattleboro loses out in this picture as well.

We have many, many artists and creative individuals who are, as Arlene Distler wrote, without employment. If the Retreat only opened its doors to our community of creative individuals, we might benefit on both sides.

It would be of service to the community and the institution.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #505 (Wednesday, April 10, 2019). This story appeared on page D3.

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