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10 October 2016

How I feel about Bedlam, as someone who might have been in there

A new exhibition examines the history of mental health care and the enduring stigma that surrounds it.

By Eleanor Margolis

I’d seen James Norris before, in a book I used to read – as a kid, weirdly – about assorted horrendous things from the past. He stares out of the etching with the sad eyes and Cupid’s bow lips of a Romantic poet. If he weren’t manacled to a bed, you’d think he was Percy Shelley. In 1815 Norris, in fact a 55-year-old American former marine, became the poster boy for the campaign against the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in institutions like London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam). Norris was the focus of an inquiry presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Madhouses, one that sought sweeping reforms in Britain’s hellish asylums. By the time his plight was made public, Norris, who had been involved in some violent incidents at Bedlam, had been chained to his bed and restrained with a custom-made iron harness for over a decade. His release from chains (as a result of the inquest) was such a shock to his system that he died a few weeks later. The Norris portrait represents the nadir of an institution whose name was already synonymous with chaos and degradation.

At the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond, the morbidly iconic portrait of James Norris is placed opposite a print of William Hogarth’s The Rake in Bedlam, as part of an introduction to the hospital’s 18th and early 19th century notoriety. Hogarth depicted a scene of squalor and caricatured madness, overlooked by two fancy and titillated women. In the 18th century, Bedlam was treated as a sort of human zoo. The women in Hogarth’s vignette have paid to come and look at “lunatics”, the main point being, “Look at these nut jobs paying to laugh at nut jobs. I’m mad, you’re mad, the whole system is mad. Fuck.” There’s nothing like a barbaric Hogarthian scene to remind me that – had I been born 300 years ago – I may well have been a “lunatic”. As a depressive gay prone to nervous breakdowns, I imagine I would have been prime Bedlam material. I’m lucky, in so many ways, that my personal Bedlam consists of weekly therapy sessions and two pills a day that turn the looped shriek of my anxiety into a hum. But the old stigma around mental health problems, of course, remains. In taking a detailed look at the history of people like me, I suppose I’m trying to find out why. And why, also, with more cuts to mental health funding imminent, this area of healthcare is so overlooked.

The exhibition traces the history of both Bethlem Hospital, which dates back to the 13th century and changed locations three times, and attitudes towards mental illness as a whole. From works of art by Bedlam’s patients, to the quackish medical instruments (a wooden boxed violet ray apparatus and an electric belt to name an especially nonsensical two) used on them, we see a gradual improvement in conditions paired with a growing understanding of the minds of those with mental health problems. But the actual process of this evolution is left a little vague. I could (generously…) assume that the confusing nature of the exhibition is a deliberate reflection on the historic chaos of Bedlam. Although the likelihood of a mental health-related exhibition doing my head in on purpose seems slim. The development of crude treatments like electroshock therapy, into antidepressants and other medications (which are displayed without much context) isn’t fully explained. The remaining social stigma around mental illness is addressed, most notably, by a well meaning slightly aloof German film based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, made by a group of mental health patients.

One particularly interesting facet of the exhibition, though, is its exploration of the idea of mental healthcare evolving its way out of the asylum and into the community. There are a few displays relating to the Belgian city of Geel where, for centuries, the mentally ill have been cared for outside of institutions. In Christian canon, Geel is the place where Dymphna, patron saint of mental disorders, was martyred in the seventh century. It remains home to hundreds of mentally ill people who have been taken in by local families. On the theme of care within the community, there’s a brief look at the ideas of Franco Basaglia, the founder of a movement called Democratic Psychiatry, which sought to dismantle the asylum system entirely, in favour of a desegregated community care approach.

Perhaps the most profound “post-asylum” exhibit is a model of the “ideal” psychiatric institution, designed by people with mental health problems, which is – with its tree houses and range of outdoor pursuits – essentially Center Parcs for the mentally ill. Ending the exhibition on a note of imagined utopia is either self-consciously whimsical or genuinely well meaning.  Although it fails, perhaps, to acknowledge the enduring nightmare of the underfunded and poorly understood world of mental healthcare. The days of “lunatics” shackled to beds may well be over but as we continue to face austerity, a futuristic retreat for some of the most neglected people in society seems even less likely than a return to Bedlam.   

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