The ghost of Menninger’s past is still seen in places all over Topeka. The hospital for the treatment of the mentally ill operated in Topeka for 77 years before leaving in 2003 for Houston.
Siebolt Frieswyk, a former Menninger psychotherapy instructor, remembers seeing nearly all of the city’s landscape from the Tower building on Menninger Hill in west Topeka. He worked there with professionals including Harriet Lerner, Irwin Rosen and Stephen Appelbaum.
Visiting scholars to the Menninger Clinic included Margaret Mead, Anna Freud and Aldous Huxley — friends of Karl Menninger, co-founder of the Menninger Clinic.
Menninger’s continuing education programs for psychiatric residents, psychologists, social workers and therapists attracted students to Topeka from across the world — the United States, Europe, South America, Japan and Mexico.
“It was an atmosphere of enormous intellectual excitement,” Frieswyk said. “This had the feel of a major university.”
Menninger had a profound affect on the field of psychiatry, while benefiting Topeka economically, culturally and socially. Menninger’s acceptance of the mentally ill became a social norm in Topeka.
Menninger employed about 1,100 people. The organization provided professional, steady, well-paying jobs with good benefits.
Employees were paid a living wage, Frieswyk said. And each employee — from the lunch counter server to the top psychiatrist — were all on the same mission of helping the mentally ill.
“It was all about the patient,” said Ira Stamm, a Topeka psychotherapist in private practice who worked at Menninger from 1972 to 1995.
Patients who came to Menninger often stayed long-term, up to a year or more. Some patients loved Topeka so much, they stayed there.
Local theater, music and the arts were influenced by Menninger employees.
Frieswyk said the Topeka Civic Symphony continues to have several former Menninger staff members as instrumentalists playing violin, viola, cello and trumpet. The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library benefited from the creative input of Menninger staff.
Topeka Civic Theater staged a presentation of “Whose Life Is It Anyway,” whose director was a Menninger psychoanalyst. Many of the principal roles were played by Menninger clinical staff. At the end of the run, the meaning of the play was discussed by a panel of Menninger psychiatrists.
Faith communities have also been enriched by the participation of Menninger musicians and vocalists. Mary Cerney, a Menninger staff psychologist, was choir director and organist for Most Pure Heart of Mary, where she also offered grief counseling. She was the first nun in the history of The Roman Catholic church to complete full training as a psychoanalyst, Frieswyk said.
Menninger’s legacy is so rich, many of these former Menninger employees have come back to Topeka this weekend for a reunion.
One of the reasons Menninger was such an economic powerhouse was its national reputation as a place where you go for help if all other efforts have failed. Menninger used an extensive diagnostic method that involved a battery of tests and patient interactions with a team of professionals, said Stamm. The diagnosis typically took a week, sometimes two weeks.
In 1979, Richard Carpenter, of the 1970s hit group The Carpenters, reportedly kicked his addiction to Quaaludes at the Menninger Clinic, according to a Jan. 1, 1989, Chicago Tribune article by Frank Sanello.
Gene Tierney, a popular actress from 1940 to 1964, came to Menninger in 1958. She remained there for a time and worked as a sales girl in a local dress shop as she integrated back into society.
Karl Menninger co-founded the Menninger Clinic in 1925 with his brother, William, and his father, C.F. Menninger. Karl led the agenda of American psychiatry in the 1930s and 1940s, publishing multiple books like “The Human Mind,” “The Vital Balance” and “Man Against Himself.” Karl was known for his difficult, irascible personality, but he had a knack for engaging patients, said the late Irving Sheffel, longtime administrator at the Menninger Clinic, in previous interviews. Karl understood the power of hope in a patient’s recovery.
With an agreement with the VA in late 1945, the Menninger brothers were able to use the Veterans Administration Hospital as a training center for psychiatric residents.
The Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry and Mental Health Sciences trained hundreds of psychiatric residents after World War II.
Psychiatrist Samuel Bradshaw completed his residency at the Menninger Clinic. He was chief of psychiatry at the VA in Topeka for 20 years.
Bradshaw said that when he arrived at Menninger, he was impressed with employees’ compassion and kindness. The clinic was filled with engaging, empathetic intellectuals who cared deeply about the mission of helping people with mental illness. Bradshaw quickly made friendships with several professionals who shared his love of psychiatry and music.
“It felt like home,” he said.
Bradshaw said the Menninger Clinic way of treating patients was implemented at the VA. Much has changed throughout the years with the treatment of mental illness in America, but the VA still has resources to treat veterans suffering from PTSD and other illnesses, he said. When treated, these veterans are less likely to end up in prison, he said.
Topeka lost the Topeka State Hospital in 1997; Menninger left six years later. Many people who would have been treated at either place now end up in prison, Bradshaw and Frieswyk said.
Prisons are full of the mentally ill, they said — a great tragedy.
Today, pharmacology has supplanted psychotherapy. Research at universities is often funded by drug companies. As a result, universities cater to drug companies in order to get research grants, Frieswyk said.
Sigmund Freud was a huge part of the Menninger way, and the founder of psychoanalysis was given a large bust in the Tower building at one time. Menninger’s brand of Freud’s psychoanalysis was dynamic and interactive. Freud’s mantra that a healthy person is able to love and to work was taken to heart. Karl Menninger had patients working in arts, crafts and gardens. Treatment was not only for the mind, but also for the body and soul.
A frequent consultant to Menninger was John “Jock” Sutherland, a prominent Scottish psychoanalyst who said that, “We are in the growth and development business.”
It is a delusion to think that a pill can solve a person’s mental illness, Bradshaw said. So much more of the person needs to be examined and treated.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Menninger hired numerous Eastern Europeans. Their children attended local schools and families joined local churches and Temple Beth Sholom. They brought with them their love of opera, orchestra and theater and engaged in local groups that supported their passions, interests and beliefs.
Topeka is blessed with a rich theater community, including one of the oldest, longest-running civic theaters in the country. Longtime Menninger employee Sheffel gave $1 million to Topeka Civic Theatre.
Partly because of efforts by Karl’s daughter, Rosemary Menninger, Menninger left a significant archive at the Kansas Museum of History. The Menninger family archives, correspondence by Karl and others and letters by Sigmund Freud, William James and Florence Nightingale are there, drawing scholars from around the world to do research.
Many former Menninger employees influenced and worked at several local organizations, such as Valeo, Family Service & Guidance Center, The Villages and Heritage Mental Health Clinic of Topeka. Many private practice psychotherapists in northeast Kansas are Menninger-trained.
On Saturday, Lee Wright and Alice Eberhart-Wright hosted a party for former Menninger employees, called the Gunavardina Reunion. Gunavardina was a social network in the psychiatric community that occurred in the early 1970s as a gathering place to celebrate cultures, food and entertainment. Mahasen DeSilva came up with the name, which means “overflowing with goodness” in Sinhalese. They once had a Brazilian carnival, a French wedding, a Dutch Christmas, Chinese dinners and plenty of singing, dancing and developing lifetime friendships.