Opinion: Moccasin Bend Health Institute decision a missed opportunity

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute is shown on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023.

One of the advantages of adulthood for most people is remembering their childhood fondly — of course they recall being the best, most well-behaved child. I have other recollections, memories that popped up recently and reminded me of how far we have come when we think about mental health care.

Anytime I would act up or annoy my mother in any number of ways, she would reach into her bag of verbal warnings for the best one to get me to stop.

"You keep acting like that and I'm gonna send you to Moccasin Bend," she would tell me.

She was referring to the Moccasin Bend Health Institute, only back then we knew it as an "asylum."

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As a kid, hearing about Moccasin Bend in that way left the impression that "the Bend" was a place where the "disturbed" were sent. It seemed a faraway place, out of sight and out of mind. That impression misinformed my view of mental illness and the people who live with mental illness.

Fortunately, today we are more understanding of mental health and its prevalence. A 2021 National Alliance on Mental Illness report states more than 57 million adults in America have experienced a mental illness; 14 million have experienced a severe mental illness. But acceptance of mental illness is greater and treatments are advancing year by year.

Most patients living with mental illness, or learning how to live with it, no longer have to be "sent" to a remote location for treatment.

Years later, on my first day on the job as the Chattanooga Times editorial page editor, I settled into my office. Looking up at one wall, I spotted a large map — of Moccasin Bend — that is home to the now 60-year-old psychiatric hospital, a municipal golf course, a firing range and a large chunk of national park land.

Competing interests

This week Tennessee officials had a chance to accomplish two critical goals that have generational impact on our health care and our longstanding commitment to preservation and conservation:

Match the evolution of mental health care by endorsing the development of a new state-of-the-art facility off the peninsula, and with that relocation, supporting efforts to fully realize development of the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

But the State Building Commission voted swiftly to keep the mental health institute on the bend on 13 acres of state-owned land where the vacant Winston Building is now.

Several advocates, including National Park Partners board members, had testified to the historical significance of the peninsula and the importance of moving the mental health facility so that the park can be developed as envisioned years ago. State mental health officials and a nurse who works at the hospital advocated to keep the institute on site.

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There is much unknown about the alternative sites that were considered, except for an option for the facility to go on Erlanger hospital's campus. A state official said 40 sites were evaluated, including sites in Marion and Bradley counties. However, no list was provided of those sites or the reasons they were rejected.

An archeological survey will be conducted on the site, officials said. Results could affect the next location of a new Moccasin Bend hospital.

Let's hope this survey is more than a few shovel turns of dirt before someone says, "Nothing to see here. Proceed."

Other questions come to mind, including new timelines for demolition of the existing facility and where current patients would go in the meantime. What happens if the archeological findings on the site to be developed are found to be culturally significant? Does the federal government have any role at that point?

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Certainly, leaving the facility right where it is could serve patients well. It's beautiful and peaceful, a beneficial therapeutic space for patients (and staff, it was pointed out at the commission meeting).

We support a new mental health facility. We applaud the state for committing $270 million-plus to the project. Mental health care has come a long way and we support expansion of services in every way possible. Children today won't grow up with fear of mental health or the stigma that often was associated with mental health challenges.

At the same time, Moccasin Bend is such a unique asset; no city can boast of something like this. It's a shame that efforts to provide citizens and visitors an outdoor, history-rich experience like no other may be out of reach.