All people deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion, including those with a physical or mental illness. The work of conscientious objectors in hospitals during the Second World War helped to change the way society treated these people.
In Manitoba, nearly one hundred conscientious objectors served in hospitals as part of their alternative service, most of them in mental health facilities. This work allowed COs to promote health and peace instead of war and to take the place of hospital workers in the military. Most importantly, though, the COs provided loving and caring service and changed the way hospitals treated patients after the war.
Mental illness is harder to understand and treat than a physical injury. In the past, shock treatments with electricity, drugs, and cold water were used on people with mental illness. For the COs who served in mental hospitals during the Second World War, the experience opened their eyes to a world they could never have imagined.
Herbert J. Brandt remembers what it was like the first time he worked in the Brandon Mental Hospital: “Although it was daytime, the ward was only dimly lit. The odour was strong, but not that of a hospital. There was a pungent smell of detergent combined with body odours. I thought it was most unpleasant.” [ASM, 122-132] William J. Kehler, who worked at the Manitoba School for Mentally Defective Persons in Portage la Prairie, has similar memories: “My first impression of the work was that of a strange and somewhat repulsive atmosphere.” [ASM, 114-121]
When Henry H. Funk first walked up to the Manitoba School for Mentally Defective Persons, patients greeted him with shouts and jeers.“ At the moment,” he later wrote, “I was plain scared. Society had a lot of prejudiced notions about the mentally ill and I shared those notions. They sounded strange and acted strange and looked strange and they were part of my very strange future.” This feeling didn't last. “Later,” Funk continues, “I would learn to know some of them personally and to like them as individuals and as persons.” [ASM, 138-153]
W.I. Enns, who served with Funk, agrees: “As time went by, I got to know the patients by name and as individuals, with their own unique personalities. The experience of caring for the patients and seeing their response was very rewarding.” [ASM, 107-110] Jake Reimer appreciated the opportunity be a Christian witness. “In the mental hospital the work was interesting and challenging. Here we did not have to talk about our Christianity, but rather live it, and people respond far quicker to action than words.” [MHC, 1015-43]
After the war ended, the COs who served in the mental hospitals moved on to other jobs, but the need for improved mental health services remained. Some of the COs had seen things which disturbed them and which they knew should be improved. Gradually, other Mennonites became interested as well. In 1957, the Manitoba Mennonite churches, together with the Province of Manitoba, began planning a new mental health hospital. This facility, called Eden Mental Health Centre and located in Winkler, Manitoba, provided a wide-range of community mental health services. The official opening and dedication ceremonies were held on June 3, 1967.
Although ten years passed between the end of the war and the initial planning for Eden Mental Health Centre, conscientious objectors played a large role in its formation. The connection in the United States was more immediate. There, more than 1,500 Mennonites served in mental hospitals. This small but vocal group helped create the Mennonite Mental Health Services (MMHS) branch of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1947. The MMHS went on to found a number of mental health institutions in the United States. It also helped in the creation of Eden Mental Health Centre.
Read more about the history of Eden Mental Health Centre.
The motto of the Eden Mental Health Centre is “Let us do good to all people.” This reflects the influence of the alternative service years in mental hospitals and the desire of Mennonites to be good neighbours.
Today, Eden Mental Health Centre has expanded into Eden Health Care Services. It is still a church-based organization, and, in conjunction with the Regional Health Authority-Central Manitoba, provides a much-needed service throughout southern Manitoba . It treats people with all sorts of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The options for clients include group therapy, individual counselling, and psychiatric assessments. Eden also provides training so that disadvantaged people can find a job.
In these ways, the Eden Mental Health Centre continues the work of CO hospital workers during the Second World War.