Darkside of Morning

1965 – 1967

The Manhattan School for Seriously Disturbed Children

The following text was taken from an article written by Jack Shepherd in July, 1968, published in United Church Herald and Presbyterian Life. Some text has been altered slightly to be current.

Who are America’s mentally ill children? “They are your own or your neighbor’s; your children’s classmates,” Bert Kruger Smith states. “They are perhaps, youngsters mistakenly placed in a school for the deaf or retarded. For these children are chameleons. They can melt into the patterns for other disorders and seem so much like the retarded or the hard of hearing that they can be diagnosed incorrectly.”

In 1962 worried mothers founded the Association for Mentally Ill Children (AMIC), got a special teacher, and started working with 3 mentally ill children in a settlement house at Third Avenue and 30th Street.

The Reverend John O. Mellin, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, whose son was one of the first three students, served as president of AMIC. His wife was vice president, and another church member was treasurer. First Presbyterian Church had a modern, five-story brick building with a playground on the roof. Why not expand the school and move there? In 1963 Dr. Mellin and other AMIC parents eased the Manhattan School for Seriously Disturbed Children in. “The public schools have kindergartens,” Mellin said, “and at that time they weren’t helping the mentally disturbed. A lot of people feel their churches should shield them and not bring the harshest outside realities inside. I don’t feel this is true.”

By 1968, AMIC, with a Board of Education subsidy ran the school for mentally ill youngsters from four to fourteen years old. The school had a classroom annex at the Boys’ Club of New York for its adolescent program. Jerome (Jerry) Spiegel, director of the Manhattan school at the time saw the school as having three phases: phase one, helping children four to twelve; phase two, helping adolescents; phase three, helping young adults. In 1968 the school was just entering phase two.

The Manhattan’s teachers worked with an average of three children each. They gave the children close attention in an academic program supplemented with music, art, dancing and field trips. Slowly, youngsters who had shut themselves off started to come back. On the broad spectrum of childhood mental illness, Manhattan School worked with the most seriously ill which very few schools did at that time.

The Manhattan School brought all of education, medicine, and therapy to bear on the child in hopes that each child would get enough self-care skills to live in the community at least in a protected area. On its own small scale the school was keeping severely disturbed children from the dark corners of society.

“This all reflects what humanity has to offer its fellow man,” Jerry Spiegel believed. “People say it costs too much. Nothing costs too much when we’re working with humans.” John Mellin agreed: “I think this is the kind of thing churches should be getting involved in.”

What happened was not simply more efficient use of empty church buildings, nor the progress toward health of sick children. The church reached into the community to fill a drastic, frightening need. Ignored, these disturbed children might have become adult cast offs. Troubled youngsters then (and even now) drift among agencies, courts, mental health clinics, social workers. Some float through the range of schools – public, private, military, correctional – until they are dropped by the wayside. It is a costly neglect. The price of mental illness in runs to $20 billion a year (in 1968). (In 2005 the United States spent about $113 billion on mental health care services.)

Too many towns, too many schools, too many parents, too many churches feel this is not their problem, but one for their neighbor, their doctor, their mental health department. But as Bert Kruger Smith wrote “the problem (of the disturbed child) is a nation-wide and neighbor-narrow…the answer can be formed by the voices of thousands or the whisper of one person.”

So far, we have heard only the whisper.

Jack Shepherd worked principally as a Senior Editor at LOOK Magazine and as a writer in Newsweek’s foreign department. He is currently a professor at Dartmouth College where he has been since 1988.

Reverend John O. Mellin was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village from 1946 until he retired in 1989. He passed away in 1997.

Jerry Spiegel was the director of The Manhattan School for Seriously Disturbed Children. We have been unable to locate any current information on him.

Bert Kruger Smith was an author. She wrote extensively about the mentally ill and elderly. An excerpt from her book No Language but a Cry was used in the full published article. She passed away in 2004.

AMIC is now AMAC – The Association for Metro Area Autistic Children, Inc. (AMAC), is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that provides services for people of all ages diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since 1961, AMAC’s goal has been to enable children, students, and adults to reach beyond their current abilities. Through their many education programs and related services, they strive to assist their participants to develop and maintain the skills required to lead fulfilling lives. www.amac.org

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