Newsmaker: Antonia Hylton

Journalist investigates mental health

February 12, 2024

Antonia Hylton speaks on the LLX Studio stage
Antonia Hylton speaks at the 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore on January 20. Photo: EPNAC

NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Antonia Hylton says she became obsessed with the story of Crownsville (Md.) State Hospital when she arrived at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a history student.

Hylton spent years doing archival research and building relationships with former patients and staff members at Crownsville, one of the last segregated psychiatric hospitals with surviving records. During that time, she learned more about the history of the facility, which operated from 1911 to 2004, and of psychiatry more generally, particularly from the perspective of Black Americans. She also discovered how this history paralleled the trauma and stigma surrounding mental health care and mental illness in her family and for Black Americans more generally. Her new book, Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum (Legacy Lit, January), traces Crownsville’s nearly 100-year history.

American Libraries spoke with Hylton about mental health, libraries’ role in caring for community members, and how the story of Henrietta Lacks connects to Crownsville State Hospital.

The book discusses trauma and the stigma associated with mental health, particularly among Black people. How can these issues be improved?

You need to understand why our system was built the way it was. The largest provider of mental health care services in many communities is a prison or a jail. There are not a lot of doctors who take public insurance or who can serve people who have no insurance at all. Even families with great insurance, like my family, find themselves on months-long waiting lists for mental health care. And when they do get access to mental health care, especially if they’re people of color, immigrants, or people who speak English as a second language, they may not get quality care. They may be disrespected by providers and not able to have therapeutic conversations in a space that is supposed to be therapeutic and healing.

A lot of people think mental illness is a mystery, that there’s so much about the biology of it that we don’t understand. That’s very true. But there is a lot we actually do know about what mitigates mental suffering and how you can better serve people with community programming and safe and supportive locations for children and families to go.

Is there a role for libraries to play as community centers in helping to improve mental health?

I think so. I talk to young people about their feelings, their emotions, and their political beliefs all the time. I hear consistently about loneliness, isolation, and feeling like there is nowhere to go. But the library, at least for me as a kid, was the place where the whole point was for young people to explore, to have fun. Libraries, parks, schools, and community centers can play a major role in solving our mental health care crisis and giving people a third place in their life to physically be and go.

How does the story of Henrietta Lacks connect with the story of Crownsville?

Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without her knowledge or consent by a doctor at Johns Hopkins and [they] became this invaluable, everlasting cell line used to produce all kinds of products and vaccines that are worth unbelievable sums of money. For the Black community, the story of Henrietta Lacks is a story of medical abuse, exploitation, and a lack of recognition.

Her daughter, Elsie Lacks, was sent to Crownsville. While her mother was suffering with cervical cancer and reaching the end of her life, Elsie was also being used as part of a number of experiments. Patients like Elsie were not able to give consent to take part in these procedures, which involved things like drilling into their skulls.

When people talk about or try to process medical racism or medical discrimination, they often think of single moments like Henrietta’s story. Elsie’s story urges us to consider all the other quieter, smaller ways in which these issues unfolded. That’s a part of imagining a better future too, because when you have communities that have this lack of trust for therapists or psychiatrists, healing requires acknowledging what’s happened and figuring out how you repair some of those relationships with the communities that have been harmed.

What were your experiences working with the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for a lot of material for the book?

I owe a lot to the researchers and experts at the Maryland State Archives. This book wouldn’t be possible without their patience. It was a long road, though. When it comes to hospitals, you can’t just walk into an archive and demand to see patient records. I had to go through a long process of essentially taking ethics exams to both prove to Harvard University and the State of Maryland that I could handle human subject research and that I could treat those files, those old photographs, and those people with the dignity that they deserve.

The very first time I went to the archives here in Maryland, I was overwhelmed. I was really lucky to have people who coached me through that and allowed me to just sit there for hours taking the diligent notes that I needed. When you see the photos and the rich media in the book, that is really a testament to their foresight to save and to preserve all these things but also their support for this work so that this history can be shared with the public.

What do you make of the recent wave of book challenges and book bans?

When I talk to kids around the country, they feel that adults and politicians who speak on their behalf don’t really care about what children need, the stories they want to hear and experience, and the kinds of lessons they want to learn.

They hear a lot about freedom of speech, but they want freedom to read. They feel like they’ve been robbed, in a lot of ways. We as adults, and as people who are shaping our world day in and day out, need to think about how we’ve been making this generation feel. My hope is that these fights land in a place where people remember the role that reading plays in a functioning democracy and a civil society.


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