Recalling treatment at Buffalo’s former mental institution

Jun 5, 2018

Part 2 of a series

The very first psychiatric center in Buffalo was called Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. The name changed over the years and so did the way patients were handled. In our Mental Health initiative WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley explores past treatment, as the former mental institution decline. 

"You can’t escape the history of that place and you can’t escape the terrible things that were done at that place - you can’t escape the way people were treated at that place,” said Ken Houseknecht, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County.

There are some who still have difficulties with the thought of the former psychiatric center – now reborn as a hotel and restaurant.

“I’m very conflicted when I go by that building. I’m happy to see it’s been restored and it’s beautiful and it’s got a new life, but I remember what its old life was. It was not a happy life for a lot   of people in Western New York,” remarked Houseknecht.  

Inside the former Insane Asylum on the Richardson Olmsted Campus where a large part of the former facility remains in decay.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Across the country, similar asylums were abandoned, leaving haunting images of past care and treatment including lobotomies, hydrotherapy and shock therapy that started in the early 20th century. But those treatments were considered innovative at the time. 

Dr. Celia Spacone spent more than 30-years at the current Buffalo Psychiatric Center. She’s now retired as executive director.

“When you look at the history of some of the treatments that were used with people with mental illness, in retrospect now - they were not kind - they were not gentle and they were not helpful, yet I try to look at those things in light of what people’s intentions were. Some of the things were doing now to treat various disorders, they may find out 20, 30-years from - we were completely wrong, but I think people did it with the best of intentions and that’s what I try to hang on to - that notion. People did what they thought was the right thing,” explained Spacone.  

“Was shock therapy done at the psych center?” asked Buckley. “Yes”, replied Spacone.  “And the results,” Buckley questioned.

Looking out of a window in the former Buffalo Insane Asylum.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

“Well electro-convulsive therapy - now we’ve learned a lot about it. The way it is done now is very humane and can be very effective for some very intractable depressions - so it is a good tool. We don’t do it at the psych center any more. We’ve had some patients that get the treatment and come back and say it has changed their lives, but when it was done early, in its development, the way it was done was not A. humane and B. as effective,” replied Spacone.

Anthony Rudnicki remembered being treated at the psychiatric center in 1961.  The retired educator, originally from Lackawanna, also wrote the book Bipolar Buffalo. Rudnicki shared his story from the back yard of his home in Hamburg, recalling how he suffered a mental break down while attending the University at Buffalo more than 50-years ago. 

Anthony Rudnicki in the yard of his Hamburg home discussed his care at the former insane asylum in 1961.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"You know my first night I was chained to the bed by sheets, so I was naked as basically a human 'X'.  My arms and legs were tied by twisted white sheets to the four corners of the bed. The light, I recall vividly was nothing but a wire hanging from the ceiling with a naked bulb,” Rudnicki recalled. “The greatest percentage of people that are so-called manic depressive – I think the angry or hostility is directed in-ward, not outward.” 

Rudnicki described what he remembered as much like the 1975 movie “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Actor Jack Nicholson portrayed a character who undergoes shock therapy and so did Rudnicki.

“After shock treatments and I had a number of them, you are kind of in a stupor. It takes days, sometimes a little longer to fully recover," said Rudnicki.

Rudnicki also was treated with the drug lithium, but no longer uses medication. Instead he relies on family support and art therapy, something he first learned at the psych center to help keep his mental health in check.

Rudnicki still has the first mosaic he created during his psychiatric stay in Buffalo.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

“I think the one value that I value the highest is creativity, and really to me the key of life is to find someone to love and be loved in returned,” Rudnicki stated.

Rudnicki still has the first mosaic he created during his psychiatric stay.

Rudnicki said by the time he was treated at the psych center, it was in a pretty bad state of decay”.  By the late 60's it was overcrowded with more than 3,000 patients.  But then a new psychiatric center was constructed and by 1974 patients were transferred into the new facility.

Looking out from inside the former Buffalo Insane Asylum.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

As our series continues, we will explore another big change in the way mental illness was treated. As new drugs came on the market, many patients were released from the facility.

In Part 3: Shifting patients to community treatment has brought new problems.