Asylum and stigma

You don’t have to dig very far into the history of most families to find someone who spent some time in an asylum. More than one person in my own family has ended up in the building ‘round the bend’ in the road, out of sight. A story was told about my Scottish great uncle who stayed on voluntarily as a gardener in hospital for the rest of his life which was, I guess, the family way of lessening the stigma of having a husband and father who went into the asylum and never came out. A much closer relative spent many months in a crumbling monolith in Lincolnshire in the seventies. When I went to see him, everyone in the train carriage would watch as I got off the train in the middle of nowhere. There was only one possible destination: a place which carried the taint of madness. And then there was my father. Although there were times in his life when his mood was very bleak, he wasn’t admitted as a patient; he would never have dreamt of even seeking help. But he spent a period in his youth working contentedly on the farm at the Towers Hospital in Leicester alongside those inmates who were well enough to be let outside into the extensive grounds, to milk the cows, collect the hens’ eggs and care for animals. Unlike my uncle, I think he really was just working as a farmer.

So it’s been interesting in the last week to reflect on the nature of asylum and the associated stigma following the response to the new book by Barbara Taylor The Last Asylum describing her periods in Friern Hospital, which is now luxury apartments and the acclaim for ex- mental health nurse Nathan Filer winning the Costa book award with his novel The Shock of the Fall. I was extraordinarily moved by the article Nathan Filer wrote for the Guardian this week on the state of current in-patient care, Mental health care- where did it all go so wrong. He describes the experience of his best friend Bryon Vincent who was admitted to the place where Nathan himself had worked some years before, after attempting suicide. What is experienced by Byron as the patient, and Nathan as his friend and visitor, is a ‘care’ system which is in a ‘God-awful mess’. Unlike Barbara Taylor’s book, this is not an account from the past; an historic description of the last days of a Victorian relic. It’s a much more contemporary description, even though the ward into which Byron was finally admitted was itself due to close because of budget cuts.

As Byron says:

“There was a pervasive air that things were disintegrating, one day I found a member of staff hiding in a bush. Alarms would sound and not be switched off for hours. The ward was more a place of crisis management than one of respite. I really felt for most of the staff, it was obvious they were doing their best under what were clearly incredibly difficult circumstances”

There are times when a person is in such a dark and tormented place that they need a place to be safe, to feel listened to and to be physically cared for. Sometimes they may need this for weeks or months, yet there is constant pressure to reduce the length of stay in psychiatric in-patient beds to little more than a few days. Nathan Filer’s friend Byron describes the pervading atmosphere succinctly: “The modern system seems much more focused on bureaucratic risk avoidance than it is on care.” Mental health workers now spend a great deal of their time trying to find beds for people often many miles from where they live, and where it is almost impossible for family and friends to visit them. I’ve commented before in this blog on the physical state of some in-patient units. With the closure of many of the new wards purpose built in the last decade with exorbitant Private Finance initiative funding, the situation is only going to get worse.

Mental health care in this country is in crisis.

I began to train in psychiatry at a time when the old asylums were beginning to close. I worked in modern though not particularly homely units attached to large general hospitals. They were situated in the community in which they served. Families and friends could visit. Home visits were possible. The aim, which wasn’t nearly achieved, was nevertherless to try and destigmatise ‘mental illness’ by providing care in a different kind of setting from the dark places built out in the fields, and on the same site as people were treated for physical illness. Many of my patients had physical illness too and were treated in the other half of the hospital. People in the acute wards and the maternity hospital benefited from the proximity of mental health expertise.

When as a consultant I found myself with beds in an asylum, at Whittingham Hospital in Lancashire, I was horrified by some of the attitudes of the staff I met whose families had worked there for generations. There had been evidence of cruelty and mismanagement at the hospital in the 1960s and 70s and an inquiry, yet little seemed to have changed. So the asylum era is not a period I hold any romantic notions about. The old asylums not only failed to meet the needs of many of the (excessive) numbers of people who ended up there, but contributed greatly to the fear of mental illness and being ‘put away.’ Many people were subject to abuse and neglect within their walls. Yet now, we seem to be in a period in which, as local units are closed down and what beds remain are centralised, there is a danger of recreating these asylums. Places where you will have to be really mad to get admission to, in which an increasing proportion of people will be most probably detained against their will, and which will once again be a source of fear and great stigma.

If we are really going to combat the stigma of mental illness, one of the things we have to do as a civilised society is put greater value on how we care for people who are too vulnerable to care for themselves and who do not always fit in with society’s prevailing norms. These are the people who may find it difficult to trust you enough to give you ‘Time to Talk,’ because they will be fearful about what your motives are, and whom you will tell; who will need empathy, care, reassurance , financial support, tolerance and sometimes a place where they can simply just be. Much as I understand the motives behind the antistigma campaign that Mind is currently running in England, there are many people out there at the moment who need a lot more than a cup of tea and a chat to help them get by. They need asylum in the other sense of the word. A place offering protection and safety.

So when a colleague told me the intention was to close all the local beds and build a new mental health unit on a ‘greenfield’ site I suggested they might also want to build a farm too. And you know I wasn’t entirely being facetious.

The healing power of the sea

I’m on the coast of North Yorkshire this week weathering a storm. I can hear the waves lashing the sea wall below my window. It’s different from the storm I would be facing if I were still at work, having to face the reality of providing care for people with mental health problems when services are being so constrained. While I listen to the windows rattling and watch the water rising up the slipway at high tide I find myself dipping into twitter every now and then. I can sense my blood pressure rising as I follow the debate about whether it is actually possible to achieve parity of esteem with physical care for people with mental health problems when everything is being cut. In some ways I miss work, particularly for the sense of being able to make a difference and for the contact with my patients. In other ways, for the constant anxiety it evoked in me for so many years, I don’t miss it at all. I’m still writing, and involved in research and teaching but I have control over what I do each day. That sense of having control over your life is important when you experience depression.

The sea can be both a source of fear, and of great comfort. I grew up next to it, and it evokes powerful memories of my childhood. My father was an excellent swimmer, but however hard he tried he never succeeded in teaching me. I was simply too anxious to take my feet off the bottom. I didn’t entirely trust he would not let go of me, yet now those times when I sat on the beach and watched him powerfully crawling through the waves off the Lincolnshire coast are some of the fondest memories I have of him.  I was born a couple of years after the great flood, which devastated the East of England. Since then I’ve travelled all over the world but have always felt the need to dip my toes in the water of whatever ocean I find myself beside. It’s like touching base with the past.

I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be swept away in a tsunami, have your home battered by tidal waves or lose your husband when a fishing boat goes down with all hands. I’ve stood in the waves on Copacabana beach in Rio, and felt the warm tropical current try and drag me down into the depths. I’ve been unable to go into the shallows in Queensland for fear of being attacked by box jellyfish and sharks. The ocean is immense, merciless and can be so destructive, and yet it connects us all together. It has a power over which we can have no control; we have to accept it.

When times are bad the sea has a way of helping me to get my problems into perspective. I came here once, to the place I am now in Yorkshire, when an intense relationship that meant everything to me had broken down. Listening to the sound of the waves pounding the walls below as I lay in bed, with only the moonlight shining through the curtains illuminating the room, both resonated with my mood and helped me to understand how life goes on whatever happens.

Some years ago when I was on a beach in the Pacific Rim Park on Vancouver Island in Canada, I saw a woman meditating whilst sitting on a driftwood log next to the ocean. Since then, I’ve always taken the opportunity to use the sound of the waves to help me to clear my mind and relax whenever I am in earshot of the sea.  Next time you are there, whatever the weather happens to be, find somewhere to stand or sit awhile that is sheltered from the wind (or rain). Focus on your breathing as you would in any kind of meditative practice, but listen intently, with your eyes closed, to the sound of the waves ebbing and flowing and crashing to the shore. Try and carry on for at least ten minutes or longer if you can. When I make time to do this, it gives me a wonderful sense of wellbeing. For me it’s a kind of meditation in which I connect directly with nature. I suspect it’s a similar feeling to that achieved by mindfulness practice, but I am only just making time now to learn more about that. I will write more on that topic soon. In the meantime I am returning home with the sound of the sea, not in a shell in my pocket as I did as a child, but in my soul instead.