New Haven, West Virginia, is a small town nestled in Appalachia and located approximately eight miles from the juncture of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Newspaper articles from the 1950s and ’60s suggest that the town’s demographic makeup and surrounding area as nearly 97 percent Caucasian.
In 1926, as commissioned by West Virginia, a psychiatric facility was opened and named The Lakin Hospital for the Colored Insane. In the tradition of the time, the facility operated as a self-sufficient community with gardens and livestock. The patients and staff at the facility were Black individuals.
Four years before the opening of this facility — which was touted as a groundbreaking effort to provide care for patients with psychiatric illness who were also Black treatment in a “separate but equal” setting — Dr. Mildred Mitchell-Bateman was born in Brunswick, Georgia.
She attended Barber-Scotia College and then received her doctorate in 1946 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Mitchell-Bateman began working at Lakin in 1946. She then studied at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Kansas and returned to Lakin in 1955 as the clinical director.
I grew up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, later graduated from the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and then completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. This was only three hours from Huntington, where Dr. Mitchell-Bateman continued her work into her 80s.
I have been studying the history of psychiatry in Appalachia and came across her name. It was largely unfamiliar other than knowing the psychiatric facility in Huntington bears the name Mildred Bateman Hospital.
From a lens of privilege, I guess I assumed the hospital was named after a donor to the facility. As I learned a few details about her work, I was struck by the fact that she studied in West Virginia and had a career in psychiatry.
I am only now well into my second decade of practice learning about this pioneering psychiatrist who contributed immensely to the field of mental health.
Beyond her contributions to psychiatry and perhaps more translatable to a wider audience are her additions to the work of advocating for women’s reproductive rights and civil rights and advocating for women’s and civil rights at a time when both women and diverse voices were largely unheard.
Today, only 2 percent of psychiatrists are both female and Black. At the beginning of Dr. Mitchell-Bateman’s career, the percentage of African American physicians of either gender was less than 0.1 percent.
At a time when her colleagues likely looked nothing like her, and the vast majority had not experienced racial discrimination that she surely endured daily, she distinguished herself and made changes to the landscape of psychiatry and human rights.
There has been a more public acknowledgment in the work of many different fields related to the history of erasing the work of women and even more so Black women and BIPOC individual’s contributions.
I believe Dr. Mitchell-Bateman’s contributions have largely been left out of the historical recounting by psychiatrists during her career, which spanned nearly 70 years. She needs to be brought out into the spotlight for her work.
Though her initial work was as a clinical director at Lakin and later the superintendent, she would be appointed to higher positions.
In 1962, she became the director of the Department of Mental Health in West Virginia. She was the first female or African-American individual to serve in this role.
During this tenure, she fought hard to increase funding to the psychiatric hospitals in West Virginia and decried the deplorable conditions. The Beckley Post-Herald ran an article with the headline “Dr. Mildred Bateman Won’t Gloss Over Complaints” regarding the conditions at the psychiatric facility — calling out Lakin hospital.
This work brought scrutiny and a call for her resignation by some. However, she was supported by many and used her platform to bring awareness to the conditions in psychiatric facilities. She highlighted the need for community involvement and attention to the after-care of patients who were discharged from the facility when little consideration was given to these issues.
In 1973, she was appointed the vice president of the American Psychiatric Association. This made her the first Black female to hold any office for the association. Her contributions during the ’70s may be the most profound and largely unmentioned. She was at the forefront- of the fight for human rights in marginalized and, at times, maligned populations. These contributions were instrumental to changes in removing homosexuality as a mental illness from the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” and upholding women’s reproductive rights in a climate when these issues were often not discussed.
In her post with the APA, she fought to have homosexuality removed as a mental disorder. The resulting change that removed this “illness” was significant in the fight for equal rights for sexual identities other than heterosexual.
Then, in 1975, she served as the chairwoman on the Institute of Medicine’s Study on Legalized Abortion and Public Health. This groundbreaking work published two years after the Roe v Wade decision explored medical and psychological complications after legal abortions.
The study found that research supported that there were little to no long-lasting psychological or physical sequelae after these procedures and is still quoted today.
In 1977, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Commission of Mental Health, contributing to continued lobbying for financial support of mental health in the United States and emphasizing the importance of community involvement leading to The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
After completing that assignment, she became faculty at Marshall University School of Medicine, serving as chair and became an instrumental part in developing their psychiatric training programs.
In 1985, she became clinical director of the Huntington State Hospital, renamed in 1999 as the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital. She continued practicing until her death in 1989 at the age of 89.
Dr. Mitchell-Bateman was a pioneer and champion for the rights of the mentally ill and other marginalized populations. Her historical impact cannot be underestimated.
Regretfully, even in the 21st century, psychiatry has maintained little racial diversity in our practitioners. The importance of the representation of Black women and men is not quantifiable, but the outcomes of our patients depend on the diversification of our field.
Diversity of ideas, experiences, and culture will be important in the following decades and centuries as an essential step to recognizing, acknowledging, and changing the systemic racism in psychiatry and medicine.
Dr. Mitchell-Bateman is an important icon in the field of psychiatry and medicine, and the study of human rights advocacy needs to be elevated and taught about now and in the future.
Courtney Markham-Abedi is a psychiatrist.
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