10 Famous Residents of McLean Psychiatric Hospital

Fifty years ago today, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in a gas-filled oven while her children slept a room away. Her first suicide attempt 10 years earlier landed her at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, which she famously chronicled in The Bell Jar. Plath wasn’t McLean’s only famous resident; at one point, it was the place for the well-to-do poets, artists and musicians to go to have nervous breakdowns while still enjoying horseback riding, rooms with private fireplaces and tea served from a silver service. It’s still ranked the #2 psychiatric hospital in the country.

It wasn’t all like that, of course, which you know if you watched Girl, Interrupted, another piece based on a patient’s stay at McLean. Here’s how Plath and nine other names you’ll know ended up at McLean.

1. Sylvia Plath

In 1953, Plath wedged herself in a crawl space underneath her mother’s house and took 40 sleeping pills. For the next three days, while she existed in what she later called a “whirling blackness that I honestly believed was the eternal oblivion,” police, family, and total strangers searched for her. After she was discovered, having vomited up most of the pills, her mother had her admitted to McLean, most of which she retold in The Bell Jar.

2. Susanna Kaysen

Much like Plath, the author of Girl, Interrupted drew on her 18 months at McLean—where she was sent for depression—in the late ‘60s to write her most famous novel.

3. Anne Sexton

Much to her chagrin, Sexton started her life at McLean as a teacher, not a patient. She told friends she wanted to “enroll” at McLean, in part to have the same experience fellow poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell (see #7) did. She taught weekly poetry seminars in 1968, then moved on to become a creative writing lecturer at Boston University in 1969. Sexton finally got her enrollment at McLean in 1973 for a five-day examination period. She committed suicide a year later.

4. James Taylor

Finding himself sleeping for 20-hour periods at a time, James Taylor checked himself into McLean to be treated for depression as a senior in high school. He later wrote a song about his experience: “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo.”

5. Ray Charles

After being busted for pot and heroin possession in 1964, Charles was told he could forego a harsher sentence if he checked into McLean for observation every six months. According to Charles, his visits weren’t too bad. “The nicest part was meeting one of the nurses who I got next to a little later on,” he reported in his autobiography, Brother Ray. He also kept himself—and the whole building—entertained when he found a piano and another piano player “who could really wail.”

6. Robert Lowell

Admitted to McLean in 1958 after a series of stays in other mental hospitals, the Pulitzer Prize winner was the first to write about McLean in a poem called “Waking in the Blue.” He stayed there four times over a span of eight years.

7. Steven Tyler

The Aerosmith frontman found himself doing a couple of stints at McLean’s East House, starting in 1985, when he was trying to get sober.

8. David Foster Wallace

At the age of 27, and with a successful novel already under his belt, Wallace spent four weeks at McLean for depression and substance abuse. It’s not the hospital he describes in Infinite Jest, however. That one—“Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House”—is really a take on Granada House in Brighton, Connecticut, the halfway house Wallace went to immediately following his stay at McLean.

9. John Nash

The brilliant mathematician who was the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind spent a month at McLean in 1959. “I wasn’t there long enough,” he later said. During his short stay there, however, they did diagnose him with paranoid schizophrenia. He was in and out of various psychiatric hospitals until 1970.

10. Marianne Faithfull

Like Steven Tyler, Faithfull spent time in McLean in the mid-80s, following treatment at Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota for addiction.

One-Syllable Presidents
Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too

There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.


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