Tuesday, November 04, 2014

ANTON T. BOISEN: A Forgotten and Committed Advocate

Anton T. Boisen 1916

You will not find Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965) on most lists honoring the lived experience advocates of years past.  I use the term “lived experience” rather than patient, client, consumer, consumer/survivor/ex-patient, peer or persons with a psychiatric label because it has absolutely no meaning whatsoever.  Everyone has lived experience.  Rev. Anton Boisen had experience with being given a psychiatric label and he also had experience advocating and working with others who had a psychiatric label.  He is regarded as the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education and was so honored on the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. by ACPE publishing a Boisen reader edited by Glenn H. Asquith in 1992 titled Vision From A Little Known Country.

Rev. Boisen started his work at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. He was the chaplain there and got the administration to agree to let him bring theological students there and train them in what he called “reading living human documents.”  Boisen had a strong belief in the fact that much could be learned by listening to those of us with labels. This work at the hospital began in 1925.  At the time Boisen was chaplain at Worcester there were 2,200 folks being held there.  In 1932 when he became chaplain at the State Hospital at Elgin, in Illinois they had 3,600 folks there.

Rev. Boisen had two main objectives with his program of bringing theological students to the hospitals.  He wanted to get seminaries to incorporate clinical training into their curriculum for all students studying for the ministry and he wanted them to see the profound association between those with a psychiatric label and people who are suffering spiritual traumas.  Boisen believed saying you were hearing God did not necessarily mean you were having auditory hallucinations.  He also did not believe every breakdown was a biological disorder.  He thought some of them were caused by traumas including spiritual warfare. 

He was hospitalized more than once and was accused by some of only doing this work to find out more about his own troubles.  I have heard the same accusations and I am sure he was as hurt by them as I have been.  He believed above all else in making sure the whole person was seen and responded to.  He wanted to hear all he could from the person and every other place he could get information. 

In my dream world, I would have put Rev. Boisen, Carl Rogers and Alice Miller working together under the direct hand of Jesus.  People would now have a true definition of person-centered because they would know what a person is.  You can’t have person-centered until you stop measuring and labeling folks like they are one dimensional.  A person is so complex you can never figure yourself out, but folks pretend they can figure out what is good for someone else.  I have yet to see a person-centered system only the words on paper. 

Rev. Boisen tried to get folks to see people.  He is mostly forgotten, but I bet the people he truly saw in those hospitals are gathered around him now still telling their stories because he would still be listening trying to learn more.

© Ed Cooper, November 4, 2014, Stoney Creek, Tennessee
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