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Dr. Harold South, Part 3

This is a continuation of an interview with Harold "Doc" South by William Schneider and Karen Brewster on December 8, 2010 at his home in Palmer, Alaska. This is the third of three tapes.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-15-31_PT.3

Project: Alaska Mental Health Trust History
Date of Interview: Dec 8, 2010
Narrator(s): Harold "Doc" South
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: Having trouble admitting a patient from Tanana

Section 2: Starting work at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API)

Section 3: Retiring from API

Section 4: Anchorage Community Mental Health Center

Section 5: Vincent Van Gogh's biography

Section 6: His opinion on the state of the mental health system today

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: DR. HAROLD SOUTH: A lot of interesting subjects, you know. Some people like -- like Pete Bowers, he liked -- he talked to me about music and that sort of thing.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure. But now -- now we're talking about API.

DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Yeah, API. Well, let me -- let me finish up this little story about I remember somebody -- somebody in Tanana had given me some -- some smoked salmon strips, and so we got in the airport, and I think maybe I did call home and tell my wife what I was up to, that I was back from Tanana, but -- but I was going on -- going on down to Anchorage.

And in the meantime, I just shared some salmon strips with him, you know. I said, "I'm hungry. Do you want some of these?" Because I didn't want to go -- I don't even know if they had a lunch counter at Fairbanks at that time. The airports and everything, you know, they are a whole a lot different now. They were more simple then.

So anyhow, so we got down to Anchorage -- and I want to do this, and then I promise I'll get to -- I'll get to API. And I was at API. And I was acting superintendent. And I took him in and I sat him by the social work office, and social workers were supposed to process the people in. And I -- and I told them, you know, a word or two, a sentence or two of history, and I said I -- this guy was at Tanana so I brought him down, and he's to be admitted here.

So then I went to do some of my other work there, came back along that hall about an hour and a half later, and that guy's still sitting there. And I said, "Hasn't anybody talked to you yet?" And he said, "No."
So I, you know -- I looked in the coffee shop or something, you know, I ain't going to go line them up, but I'd go in the office there that's responsible for it, and I said, "This is unconscionable. I just brought this guy from Tanana, I mean, me and him and the pilot flew in a little air taxi, you know, and we waited in Fairbanks, and so on, and we get down here, and he's been sitting down here longer than that trip took, I think.

I mean, I want him admitted and I want him admitted now." And some of the people played some other game, kind of games like that.
One -- one -- one -- one guy was -- well, there was a teacher there. I think this is far enough back and it's trivial enough it's not damaging to anybody. They had a managing board there, the heads of the departments, and the superintendent, and that, and so one time we came up -- I mean they would have those when I was there, naturally, once a month.

And so they said, "We've got this problem because we -- this -- this area, some area, the area that's now dedicated for school, that's going to be something else, we got to get that department in there, but the teacher won't move the school out of there. I mean, he keeps dragging his feet and he just -- he's been told several times he ought to -- he's got to move the school somewhere else."

So I -- so then I said, Well, I'll take care of that."
After that meeting is over, I called the guy up there, and he was kind of a smirky guy, you know. You know how people are, they got, kind of, a little smirk at you all the time like they are playing some joke on you but you don't know it.

I said, "They say there's a problem that they want that for the OT or something. So move." And so he starts giving me some kind of song and dance, and I said, "Well, I just come down here once a week, and it's late in the day now, and so I'll be going back this evening, but next week I'll come down, and if you haven't got moved by then, well, I'll help you."

And so when I come back next week, he's moved.
You know, it's only -- it was only a matter, I guess, to drag some chairs and table down the hall. I thought -- I thought that a lot of those things were kind of fun to do and interesting.

One night I -- I used to stay -- well, one -- one night I went -- I went down -- I was -- I was up and I was -- I was staying in, like, a motel they had there; you know, they had some quarters for travelling people, and I would say in that motel, but I was in the hospital building.
So I went down in the basement where the children's program was, and -- and I had a key to open any door in the hospital, you know.

So I -- so I opened the -- opened the door and went in the children's ward, and as I approached the nursing station, there was one -- one nurse on duty there, and there was probably an aide around there or somewhere, but I don't know where.
And she said, "Oh, visiting hours are over and you can't visit here," and -- or some -- and some other stuff like that. And so I just turned around and went -- went back out.

I thought, you know, that's -- I thought I would embarrass her if I said, "Nurse, I'm your acting superintendent." But I just didn't. I didn't. And I never heard anything about it, nobody else ever told me anything about it. I don't think -- I don't know if she ever knew the difference.
But the doors in those wards were locked, especially at night. Especially at night, there was no -- nobody could just walk in there off the street or something, so how did she think I got in there?

I thought about it, if I was the kind of person who wanted to play games with people, I would show her my key and say, "Do you know what the heck that key is? That's the key to open all the locks." Because generally speaking, you just -- if you worked in the power plant you had a key to open the power plant and so on. But I thought a lot of those so called problems were kind of simple.
But anyhow, back to API.

Section 2: DR. HAROLD SOUTH: So we got a -- we got a -- we got a superintendent who stayed there a year, and then left. And like a lot of people who came here or other places and left, and he left saying, "I don't think you people know what the hell you're doing."
But anyhow, then in -- in '78, the clinic was closed in September, and API had no vacancy.

And I -- I worked for the Community Mental Health Center in Fairbanks for from, like, October, November, and December, and then they did have a vacancy in -- at API, and so I went to work there and got onboard there the first day of January of 1979. And --

BILL SCHNEIDER: You had to move your family down?
DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Yeah, but since -- since they were in school, at that time the kids were in school, of course, it was in the middle of the winter, and that didn't change before we went down. In fact, it got worse. But school gets out in -- the school semester ends, like, the 20th of January, or something, whatever.

So -- so we didn't try to move the family. I went down there and worked two weeks, I think, and then went back. And I -- I might have flown down, I don't remember exactly, I think I did. I just flew down and I worked a couple weeks, and then -- and then I flew back, and we had a crew cab pickup, and loaded it with a bunch of stuff. And of course, we didn't -- we didn't need a whole lot of stuff because we had furnished quarters down there at API.

But I remember the trip because there was a big blizzard, and it was storming and blowing snow and, of course, slick and all that, no visibility, and I drove in four wheel drive all the way from Fairbanks to API. The worst, most extensive storm I was ever in up here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How long were you at API?
DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Well, then I stayed there, I became the director of the admission unit, and did that for the rest of the time that I worked for the state until -- that was October of '86 I retired from state employment.

And that was an interesting thing. It was -- it's -- it's just -- it's a kind of a silly thing, but I -- and you'd think I wouldn't say anything bad about it because I benefited from it, but -- but still, it's still, it's like a lot of things I hear about on the TV and stuff, reading and whatever.

I was eligible for retirement before I came down here. I could have just retired, but I wasn't ready to retire, and so I -- besides, there was some personal things. I mean, my wife had some health problems and she needed to be down here. So --

KAREN BREWSTER: So did you enjoy working at API?
DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Oh, yes. Yes. Very much. And so -- but -- but I'm a little ahead of my story because this is how I left there.
I didn't really know why I was still working. I was eligible for retirement and, well, but I thought the work was important because I was the guy who admitted people and could -- and treated them, and could discharge them if they could make it.

And during the time that I was there, we discharged -- 65 percent of the people who were admitted were discharged back to their status quo, and that is either maybe back to work or maybe back to a boarding home if that's what adjustment they had reached. 65 percent of them within a month were discharged.

And so I thought that was important enough.
And during that time, we had a -- a change or two, we had a change of superintendents, but I served under three other superintendents after I came here, although if I'd have pressed the matter, I had seniority to have been the superintendent as soon as I came down there.

I remember when I was in Fairbanks one time, some -- this -- the administrator said that social worker who works for the Native -- the Tanana Chiefs, that's their social side sort of. I mean, the other side makes the money. Doyon makes the money and -- some people might say, and Tanana Chiefs tries to spend it. I don't know.

But anyhow, said -- oh, said, "She's leaving and we're going to have a lunch for her today."
So I said, "Oh, yeah? Well, she just came here a couple years ago."
But our administrator said, "Well, that's par for the course, isn't it?" Yeah, it is. I mean, a lot of people just work a couple years somewhere, and about the time they are beginning to catch on what's -- what's going on, they leave.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. That's right.

Section 3: DR. HAROLD SOUTH: So anyhow, here I am in -- now in API admitting people, treating them, discharging them, continue in that position until this, what I thought was kind of silly.
In the '80s, they had a -- apparently Alaska had a recession, and that was lucky for me, in a way.

They said, we had -- we had a meeting of the medical staff, and the superintendent said, got a RIF, reduction in force, anybody that's eligible for retirement -- I mean, the state wants people to retire to get them off the payroll.

If they will take the retirement, we'll give them three extra years, either you can add three years to your retirement or you can use the three years to qualify for retirement, like if you're supposed to be 55 but you're only 52, you can use it that way.

So I said, "Does that apply to the doctors, too?" I figured they'd say no. Because we did not have any what you call merit increases or anything. I mean, we were hired at a salary, and whatever they paid us, that's what we got.
And -- and even though I had a lot of seniority, I didn't make any more money than anybody. The superintendent made 10,000 more than any of the others of us, but that was just for extra responsibilities, which is a little large.

But -- in fact, very often the least qualified person becomes the administrator. This is one thing that's messed -- messed everything up all over the country, I think. It used to be you got a section gang that works on the railroad, you got to swing a 9 pound hammer. Hell, I got to where I can't even pick up a 9 pound hammer. I mean literally. But I used to -- could swing one.

Anyhow, somebody has always got his back sprained or something, he don't do very good at the work, make him the timekeeper. So -- so it turns out that he's -- he's the timekeeper, he has to pay the guy, so he's the one that's got the money, and so -- so the least qualified very often becomes the -- the top dog.

And -- and that's what happened. I mean, we -- we agreed, the medical staff agreed to appoint one of the doctors superintendent because as he got -- complained himself, or -- we wouldn't lose as much by having him to be the superintendent as -- he couldn't do the other work anyway, he couldn't be the -- he couldn't practice psychiatry, I mean, he was not a psychiatrist, so what the hell -- what else is he going to do? Well, be superintendent. Yeah. So that -- that was the last one we had. But I -- I've not identified him.

DR. HAROLD SOUTH: I ain't casting aspersions on him. Actually, he was a friend -- he was a pretty good friend of mine, and was always kind enough to me, or usually was.

Section 4: But anyhow, here I am in Anchorage, and I guess there's very little to say about it except that mentally ill people came there and were diagnosed and treated and went back to the community, and -- and hopefully were seen and treated as outpatients at the -- at -- at the Anchorage Community Mental Health Center, which -- which was built in those times.

And we had -- I mean, it was kind of like the front line of psychiatry in lots of ways. I mean, we did have a lot of court work, and there was always -- there were -- always was and still is a lot of conflict between people's freedom to do what they want to do and, I guess, public order.

And Anchorage -- or Alaska is -- is sort of -- I mean, we're proud of the fact that it's a very free place, and most people -- most people are more concerned about some of their freedom being taken away than -- than they are about seeing that people that are mentally ill get treatment.

So the point is, it's hard to get anybody into a mental hospital, it's hard for any individual to get in a mental hospital. It -- it started out, I mean, the idea was originally, you know, I mean, the striking off of the chains in France -- now I forget the name of the guy who did that, but you learned that in grade school.

Section 5: Oh, speaking of France, it's interesting to read Vincent Van Gogh's only account of his own mental illness, or maybe not his own, but -- but using his own statements and so on at the time, for the facts, for someone else to write his biography, wasn't that called Lust For Life, Vincent Van Gogh's biography? I think it was.

Well, people had great doubts at that time, and everybody -- everybody knows that he did -- he fell in love with a prostitute who was some -- sometimes a model of his, and he cut off his ear and sent it to her in a box. And he was committed to -- to a sanatorium, or whatever they called it in France at that time. And this is an interesting account of how he recovered and, you know, in the hospital began painting the garden and that sort of thing.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I think we need to wrap it up.
DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Oh, oh, yeah.
Well, so I had to -- I had to go to court a lot to try to keep people in the hospital. And that was very difficult.
So the present rule is, the way the system works now is, essentially, it doesn't work.

Section 6: And if anybody's really interested in pursuing that or if anybody happens to listen to this recording, there's a book called Madness in the Streets, it's written by a couple of social workers who documents this -- this -- this whole business, but to kind of parody the thing, if -- if you -- if you're totally mentally ill, you don't know what you're doing and you don't care and you're totally out of control, you're totally psychotic and out of your mind,

if you -- if you want to be treated by the present system, then you try to find a Community Mental Health Center, like in the phone book or something, and it's probably got some name like, you know, Happy People Center, or something, or it will have "behavioral" in the name, like the Behavioral Health Center.

And -- and you call up there and try to get an appointment, if you can state your problems, you know, pretty clearly and succinctly. And you may have to hold the line a long time, listen to a lot of music that you don't even like, but -- and finally, they'll give you an appointment for, you know, a week from next Tuesday, and then if you will provide yourself with the money to pay the fee and present yourself at the clinic and be clean and neat and well dressed,

and behave yourself and sit in the waiting room for two or three hours, they will let you talk to somebody who just got their bachelors degree in psychology or something last week, and then -- and lots of luck on your further course in the so called mental health system. Because essentially, there isn't any.

I mean, there isn't any.
It -- it -- a whole lot of people going a whole lot of different directions and don't even -- wouldn't -- most of them probably wouldn't even agree. I mean, some of the things that have caused this are things like the Myth of Mental Illness.

I just read in a -- a psychiatric paper, in fact, I still got it in the bathroom, Szasz, Tom Szasz, who wrote the books on mental illness and half a dozen other books with the same theme was recognized by psychiatrists in the UK for his inquiring spirit or something. And he -- he's -- he was a terrible, I think, a malignant intellectual influence.

I mean, he was himself a psychiatrist and was getting paid for teaching psychiatry, the younger doctors in Upstate New York or something, during the whole time that he was writing books and giving them names like the Myth of Mental Illness, there isn't any such thing.
BILL SCHNEIDER: A bad state of affairs.

DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Well, yeah. And -- and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of the things that destroyed, I think, practically the mental health system. It's -- it's a travesty.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I think, Doc, we need to leave it at that, but --
DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Yeah. Well --
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- there's a lot -- a lot there.

DR. HAROLD SOUTH: Well, yeah. I could and would and will, in fact, from time to time, I mean, if I find some willing victims to go on like this for --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Yeah. Go for it.
KAREN BREWSTER: We appreciate your time.