What happened at Oak Ridge Psychiatric Unit?

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Jacy Young¹ discusses writing the troubled history of Oak Ridge Psychiatric Unit, Ontario.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently aired a piece on the controversial history of Oak Ridge, the forensic mental health division of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada. Over its 81 years of operation Oak Ridge was notorious in Ontario for housing the most dangerous of those in the province deemed Not Criminally Responsible as a result of mental disorder, including a number of infamous serial killers. Further public attention was drawn to the institution in 2001 when a class action lawsuit, alleging violations of basic human and civil rights, was filed against the hospital and some of its doctors on behalf of several patients. The Oak Ridge building officially closed in 2014, but Waypoint continues to house Ontario’s only maximum security forensic hospital. “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” aired March 1st, 2016 as part of the CBC’s national news program The National and is described simply as: “Allegations of treatment with LSD, sleep deprivation, torture. The painful legacy of an Ontario psychiatric facility. Reg Sherren reports.”

The 15-minute piece, driven by the narrative of one man’s experiences at the institution in the 1970s, describes some of the treatment practices at the institution at this time and questions the ethics of those involved. A provocative indictment of the institution and its doctors, the segment unfortunately lacks any counterpoint regarding the ethics of the therapeutic practices employed at the hospital. Absent is any discussion of the greater context of psychiatry at this time and the treatment of patients at Oak Ridge is presented as unequivocally cruel, unusual, and unethical. This is certainly the experience of the former patient featured in “The Secrets of Oak Ridge.”



And from our present-day vantage point we may well feel similarly. Taking the context of 1960s and 70s psychiatry into account, however, the ethics, or lack thereof, of the program are less clearcut. At the time, Oak Ridge’s use of LSD and other psychopharmaceuticals – alongside other therapies – was seen as a positive form of treatment and a promising advance in the field, so much so that the program received positive coverage in the popular press and in documentaries by the BBC and the National Film Board of Canada. Where the CBC segment is most successful is in presenting the patient’s voice, as he recounts his experiences at the hospital. Respecting this patient’s experience, while putting that experience into historical context is a fine balancing act, one, unfortunately, “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” does not attempt. Contextualizing these treatment practices does not mean invalidating the experiences of this or any other patient, but it is necessary for a more complete understanding of what transpired at this hospital in this moment in time.

Arguing for the importance of paying attention to the historical context in which these events occurred is in no way an effort to excuse what occurred at Oak Ridge. That said, the aim of doing history is not simply to position horrible events as “bad” but rather to go beyond simple categorizations of events as good or bad so as to understand how and why they occurred. This kind of understanding does not mean we have to take the position that what happened was, by any criteria, “good” or acceptable, but it does necessitate taking into account a host of other factors. My problem with simply presenting what happened at Oak Ridge at wrong/unethical/evil is that too often this means the conversation stops there.

Giving patients like the one featured in this video the opportunity to recount their experiences is incredibly important, especially when there has been little opportunity for their voices to be heard previously. The segment achieves this end remarkably well, but it doesn’t do much more than this. At some level this may simply be a difference between the aims of journalism and those of history. What is the aim of this segment? To give this patient the opportunity to tell his story? Or, to tell the – highly problematic – history of Oak Ridge? I think it was doing the first, while what I really want, as a historian, is the second. I would also argue, that in order to do the latter you have to include the former, but the former need not involve the latter.

This commentary is in large part a call for a more complete history of what transpired at Oak Ridge during this period. Such a history would ideally pay attention to both the experiences of the patients at the hospital AND put those experiences and the events around them into a larger historical context. Only by doing this can we come to a more complete understanding not just of what happened, but of how something that is now recognized as awful and traumatic came to happen at all. This larger story, I would argue, is just as important to tell publicly as individual narratives like the one presented in “The Secrets of Oak Ridge.” These kinds of histories, however, can be much more challenging to communicate to the public in clear and concise form. Whatever the difficulties associated with telling these kinds of histories, we do ourselves, and society, a disservice if we do not attempt to understand how and why events like those at Oak Ridge took place.

One excellent and under-utilized source for this kind of information is the recently launched Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit produced by Jennifer Bazar. This site documents the more than eight decade long history of Oak Ridge, including treatment practices, daily life at the institution, and more. Details and fuller context for the social therapy program described in the CBC segment can be found on this page of the site. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the patients in this treatment program is as yet undecided.

This is an expanded version of a post that first appeared on the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Further Readings

Dyck, E. (2008). Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rice, M. E., & Harris, G. T. (1993). Ontario’s maximum security hospital at Penetanguishene: Past, present, and future. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 16(1-2), 195-215.

Weisman, R. (1995). Reflections on the Oak Ridge with mentally disordered offenders. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 18(3), 265-290.


¹Jacy Young is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She completed her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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