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‘Happy’ Mental Health Month?

Out with the old: Now that a modern, new Caro Center has opened its doors, the outdated buildings of the old Caro State Hospital are coming down one by one.
Date Posted: May 3, 2024

Can I say that? 

Or is it not tone-deaf to say or write or wish someone a Happy Mental Health Month? Struggling with one’s mental health is rarely a happy task; setting May aside is about awareness and acknowledgement more than celebration. 

What is worth celebrating, though, is the immense progress our society’s made in just broaching the topic — putting it on the table instead of hiding it behind closed doors. 

Recently a stark reminder of this big-picture progress and improved perspective wedged in my mind. Indulge me sharing it and I promise to bring it full circle…

Since the first time I drove by it on my way to Caro, I’ve been curious about the complex of institutional-looking buildings about four miles southwest of town, right across M-81 from the airport. Not until last week, however, did that curiosity finally bloom into a simple investigation that quickly informed me the place is Caro Center, a psychiatric hospital with a history as deep as Farm Bureau’s.

Originally founded in 1913 to house and care for epilepsy patients, the place evolved over time to address an increasingly broad spectrum of psychiatric challenges. Its name also evolved to reflect a broadening scope of care and the slowly increasing sensitivity to the dignity of patients and their families. What started in 1913 as a “farm colony for epileptics” over time became the Caro State Hospital, Caro Regional Mental Health Center, and now simply the Caro Center.

Sadly, its ugly original name isn’t the place’s most cringe-worthy aspect.

Always curious about the history of places, I continued down the online rabbit hole and soon learned the Caro facility was one of several in Michigan (and far more nationwide) where forced sterilizations took place on patients deemed, because of their disabilities, unfit to procreate. I was shocked and saddened to learn this was all part of a genuinely disturbing eugenics movement that enjoyed a troubling amount of buy-in across the U.S. in the early 20th century.

It’s not a word we see every day and I had to look it up myself. I’ll save you the trouble: Eugenics refers to the notion of improving the overall human gene pool by eliminating the reproductive rights of people deemed somehow inferior.

Sound familiar? Adolf Hitler was an admirer, and sterilization laws enacted in Nazi Germany were partly modeled on precedents right here in the Land of the Free. 

Now: None of this is to throw Caro under the bus. To the contrary, Caro Center’s a bright beacon of hope and encouraging forward progress. My point isn’t to dwell on the ugly past but to celebrate — yes — the progress made in the century since.

As chance would have it, work took me briefly to Caro just last week, and I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the facility. On my way out of town I helped myself to a quick car tour of its intricate network of interior drives, old and new. Together with the walkways, trees and buildings, much of the old complex has a formal symmetry reminiscent of a European palace and gardens. 

See for yourself on Google Maps

On the right (east) you’ll see where some of the labeled streets don’t match up with the newer satellite image they overlay. What you’re looking at there is the new Caro Center — opened less than a year ago. Its staff and the greater Caro community pushed Lansing hard to see that project through after political wrangling had its fate in doubt.

Many of the older buildings you see there on the left (west) have already been razed. The day I drove through those older parts of the complex were empty — no staff or visitors’ cars parked outside, nobody walking here or there — just an eerie quiet.

But louder than the echoes of yesteryear was the promising brightness of forward progress — out with old, in with the new — and a comfort at knowing today’s and tomorrow’s patients will experience at Caro Center a level of care and compassion far better informed than previous generations of “epileptics” and the “feebleminded” found there.

Progress is encouraging but there’s a long way to go. Of the 16 psychiatric hospitals Michigan boasted the year I graduated from high school, 13 have since been shuttered. Progress on the pharmaceutical front and the nationwide migration toward community-based mental health services have updated the mental-healthcare landscape dramatically — largely for the better.

At an even more individual, personal level, today’s efforts to encourage acceptance and acknowledge the normalcy of routine mental-health issues also exemplify progress toward a better tomorrow, when admitting to anxiety or depression is no different than contracting a cold or the flu, and when seeing a therapist or psychiatrist draws no more attention than visiting your doctor. 

This is where you and I and everyone we know and care about come in. We can all contribute to this progress by trusting each other enough to confide and have a conversation about how we’re feeling. 

All things considered it’s a light lift to be part of the solution: Words and conversation. Talking and listening. Empathy and compassion.

Portrait of MFB Member Communications Specialist Jeremy Nagel.

Jeremy Nagel

Member Communications Specialist
517-323-6885 [email protected]