New memorial honors lives of psychiatric patients lost in 1918 fire
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As a statement from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services reads, “For nearly 100 years, the final resting places of 39 people who died in a 1918 ward fire at Griffin Memorial Hospital have been largely forgotten, buried in an unmarked site…”

The roughly 200-square-foot burial site of those who perished in the fire was finally located in early 2014 at a cemetery near the Norman, Oklahoma, hospital. The state partnered with Oklahoma Archaeological Survey (OAS) to spearhead the search. Lead archaeologist Scott Hammerstedt, Ph.D., began searching the site using radar technology after receiving a tip from a cemetery employee who had heard an account that the unmarked grave was somewhere on the grounds.

In April 2015, exactly 97 years after the fire, this small mass grave was marked by a memorial headstone. The location has already become a landmark for those championing mental health advocacy. On Sept. 12, 2015, the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsored a fundraising event for motorcyclists that included a visit to the gravesite. The event, called “Ride to End Stigma,” began and ended at a Harley-Davidson location in Moore, Oklahoma, with various stops along that way that paid tribute to NAMI’s causes.

The recent recognition of the gravesite is representative of a cultural shift toward respect and empathy for the mentally ill. Nearly 100 years ago, 39 of the 40 people who died in the fire were not given a proper burial. Families were notified, but the delay in communication at the time left them unable to take action before the hospital swiftly handled the remains of their loved ones. Regardless of whether the hospital’s course of action was out of disrespect or simply lack of resources at the time, Griffin Memorial Hospital has openly recognized that it was inhumane.

As Larry Gross, Executive Director of Griffin Memorial Hospital, explains, “It just seemed like the right thing to do to find the grave site. To memorialize these victims of this tragedy appropriately.” The hospital was established in the 1890s and currently provides both inpatient and outpatient mental health services.

Though social attitudes toward those with mental illness continue to become more sympathetic, the stigma that still exists keeps many from seeking help. If you or a loved one is struggling, help is available. The Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals facing mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call to speak with a professional today.

Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer

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