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Asylums – A Personal History

October 10, 2016

With the latest 7 Days of Action kicking off today, Sara Ryan mentioned yesterday about looking at the history of medical institutions. I’m not bright enough to do that but I thought I’d share some personal memories of institutions.

I was brought up in Southall and anyone of my generation from there will have tattooed in their soul, stories of the old St Bernards Lunatic Asylum. It was a terrifying Gothic monstrosity that covered acres on a site along the Uxbridge Road. As a kid, I would often go on the 207 bus to Ealing with my mum and as the bus passed the asylum, you could feel the tension amongst the passengers. Most families in Southall have a St Bernards story.

My nan spent some time there. As I was under five at the time of her incarceration, my parents decided it was unwise to take me to visit her. I am eternally grateful for that best interests decision.

My (future) father in law worked at St Bernards as an electrician during the 1960s and 1970s. As a child, my wife wasn’t put to bed with tales of the Famous Five. Her bedtime stories were tales of her father repairing the ECT equipment! They haunted her for the rest of her life.

I have two cousins, who back in the 1960s were labelled “deaf and dumb”. They are a few years older than me and I hardly saw them at all as I grew up. Back then, families were totally under the direction of medical expertise and the professionals decided that Phillip and Gordon must be sent to a residential school in Margate. I think the family just accepted that. It was the done thing. I have a couple of photos of me visiting them but they look like holiday snaps on the promenade at Margate. No hint that between 5 and 16, my two lovely cousins were institutionalized.

One other childhood memory is the day the house down the road caught fire and the horrific sight of Mrs Bentley hanging out of her bedroom window, screaming for help. As an 8 year old, I watched her with a mix of terror and excitement. A few days later, I asked my Dad what had happened to Mrs Bentley and he replied the ominous two words, ” St Bernards”. Nothing more was said. Mrs Bentley never returned home.

In the late 1980s a very close friend was admitted to Hillingdon hospital mental health unit. She should never have been there. She had just had a devastating life experience and was experiencing deep sadness. One her first night there she was sexually assaulted by a member of staff. I’d brought her some walnut whips and during the assault the male nurse had eaten them all. Nothing came of it. Nobody believed my friend. My memories of the place are of the piercing screams, the indifferent staff and the smell of stale piss and overcooked vegetables. Until her death, many years later, my friend never got over that 4 month admission.

Doing the job I do, I’ve seen many clients who’ve spent time in the same unit. I saw a huge bloke – 6ft 4 and 22 stone who had awful stories of the place. He needed lots of nurses, usually 8, to pin him down whilst they injected his arse cheeks. He would be locked in a seclusion room for days at a time. In a scuffle, one member of staff cracked his ribs but the ward management refused to take him over to A&E. He needed years of counselling to come to terms with the brutality of his 10 month stay.

The ATU where Steven was detained in 2009 looked nothing like St Bernards or the Hillingdon MH Unit. From the outside. Inside, it was a run down, small institution. What struck me the first time I visited him was the smell. Exactly the same smell that I whiffed 20 years earlier when visiting my friend. What also hung in the air was the smell of fear, of tension, of violence. I’ll never know what it was like for him but I lived for a whole year with the desperate anxiety that he would be killed.

I’m 57. My first experience of institutions was at 2. What has changed in 55 years? Not a lot really. Eden is as many miles from his home as Philip and Gordon were in the 1960s. Connor Murphy, as misunderstood as Mrs Bentley, is locked away, as the professionals have neither the insight or interest to help him have a decent life. Like my friend in 1989, Steven was assaulted by a staff member, although this time the member of staff was prosecuted despite management attempts to hush it. And Tianze, a quarter of the size of my client, is daily pinned down by five staff to be injected with anti psychotics.

1961. Or 2016. What progress?


From → Social Care

  1. I think it was John O’Brien (I may be wrong) who cited Robert Pirsig (‘Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’) not so long ago when he was reflecting on the models of ‘care’ that underpin current (and past) provision: “If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact then those patterns will repeat themselves…. There’s so much talk about improving the system… and so little understanding.”

    One design flaw is we’ve build our new ‘models’ on the archaeology of institutions. The net curtains might be nicer but the design of the services, the ways of working, the way we ‘think’ about people labelled different or challenging, haven’t changed, despite the endless rhetoric – bumper sticker change is seen as more important than meaningful change. History is repeated because we’ve not learned from history and replaced our way of working and thinking.

    Wasn’t it Herb Lovett who wrote ‘you can put a grass skirt on a cow but it still won’t hula’? Unfortunately (Herb wrote) new names and phrases are too often ‘spiffy euphemisms’ for business as usual. We rebrand and rename, we reorganise, but the same faces, the same thinking dominates. The same lessons are ‘discovered’ in each scandal – from Normansfield and Ely in the past, to recent events at Sutton and Cornwall and Winterbourne View – places run for the benefit of staff not people in the ‘services’.

    I think Tony Benn noted each generation has to fight the same battles as earlier generations.

    When I was a kid I visited a large local psychiatric hospital: the same impressions hit me when I visit or hear accounts of ATU or other acronyms for wasted lives – the long corridors of shining floors, the proper paperwork, the jangling keys of staff, and the voicelessness of those living in these ‘islands of loneliness’ (as David Pitonyak mentions). Degrading treatment isn’t something committed by a few bad apples, but perpetrated and perpetuated by a bad barrel.

    I think the lack of change in how support is given or offered is disheartening but in many ways to be expected, despite rhetoric, despite white papers, green papers, and all the shades of BS in-between. Because too many people have not changed how we think about people using services. Until we ensure the voices of people using services and their advocates, their friends and families, have as much weight and influence in how we judge services or support systems as other voices, we’ll end up in the same mess.

    Serviceland is an odd country, they speak with strange dialects there, and perform odd dances to strange music. They’ve been performing the same steps for a century or more, though they keep changing the name of the dance every ten years or so. Those of us, like you, who have heard the music years ago, and who’ve seen them dance through the decades, still recognise the same old stuff. “No, this is completely new stuff!” they proclaim, even as our grandparents and parents remind us they, too, have heard this music before.

    Any way, enough rambling; thanks for the Blog.

  2. frannie permalink

    Brilliant both.
    My mother who was a Mental health nurse and senior sister who was truly passionate about the care patients received, she also suffered with Bi Polar disorder,my memories of ECT and how she hated it live with us till this day, she instilled in us the importance of understanding how difficult it was for such distressed people their families and how important it was to respect each other and look out for the most vulnerable. When she died I was training as a nurse and reported what today would be known as whistle blowing because of the poor cruel treatment and lack of respect shown to mental health patients who had been institutionalised (and probably too old to have family alive to fight for them,) that was 35 years ago, then in 2012 my own son when in an ATU age 16 and was a victim of a serious incident involving a member of staff, I thought this was an exception even then but as I have become more involved with other parents it is evident that it is not an exception little has changed, just the jargon used.

    • I’m so sorry to hear this, Frannie. What a wonderful mother you had who even being unwell still taught you the most important things about life, making you strong, and you’re sharing your son’s story.

  3. Judy permalink

    Just slightly off topic but did want to say, for people with mental illnesses an admission to a mental health hospital can be essential and life saving. For severe treatment resistant depression ECT is also life saving. Our local ECT suite is a lovely welcoming place, staffed by lovely welcoming staff. Just wanted to say …….

    • weary mother permalink

      ECT suite a welcoming place – nice.

      Head – and brain we do not understand a teeny bit …attached to mains electricity…no idea why life is saved – could be don’t fancy seconds ? life saved…pity about life long damage to personality etc….

      Really ?

    • Some people say ECT helps, but they apparently lose memory – the more often they have it the more memory they lose.
      We don’t know why it works for some people – and really not for others.
      Several families have said this.
      I spent a few hours with a stranger in 1979 who I met in a library where I worked as a student, who begged me for help. I looked up while I was stamping books, and she was standing with hands folded in prayer. I cry every time I remember her. I was 19 – didn’t have a clue how to help.
      I left work straightaway (our librarian was a good person, and let me go with her) and she and I walked for hours as she told me how she hated ECT, and how the NHS staff couldn’t speak her language. She showed me the grease marks in her hair, and told me how her family rejected her.
      I’ll never forget her – I wish I could have visited her in hospital and been her advocate. I spoke her language. She was my mother’s age. One of my lifetime regrets.
      If you are with a welcoming staff team, that helps, but I remember this person.

  4. Pauline Thomas permalink

    True FF2016 for some people ECT does work.

    My friend suffered severe post natal depression after the birth of her third child. No antipsychotic medication could cure her. The last resort was ECT. She had several treatments of ECT and she was cured. However she lost some memories of her early days when she was first married but she said it was worth that to get back to functioning normally again. All this happened 45 years ago.

    • Judy permalink

      As I said, definitely not without side effects, but can be life saving for severe depression when nothing else is helping.

      • weary mother permalink

        A relative …who had suffered a very cruel bereavement became reasonably – very depressed..and had ECT in late 1930s. Perhaps time would/could have been a cure ? Judgement made by psychiatrist then as now ?

        Personality was destroyed…completely. Life long tragedy for whole family.

        Do we remember how effective giving the old dodgy televisions a good thump was – no idea why ? Or why it was not…

        ECT is a brutal therapy used without any real understanding of the brain …..and or the what the potential lasting outcome will be. A few thousand volts and good dollop of fear – eg a good thump on the brain .. as a cure in 2016 ?

        Plus psychotropic drugs……..

  5. Judy permalink

    Experiences differ, but I can say in 2016 for severe depression, when medicationand therapy isn’t working, ECT can be life saving.

  6. Interesting news. I hope, Weary mother, that this is better than ECT.
    It’s a new treatment for depression and anxiety disorders without side effects:
    rTMS (repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation). It has a 66% recovery rate.
    I thought I was dreaming as we’d just been talking about ECT – but it’s here in my local paper, ‘Life’, with a picture of professionals endorsing it.
    No constipation? I’m going to do research today, as there’s no joy with only medication. We’re all entitled to choice of therapy, not constantly debilitating our children. It works alongside kindness and quality of life too, as usual, and some medication if needed.

    It’s recommended by NICE (so must look that up), and can be used in autism and LD, eating disorders and dementia.
    God help us. Something has to work.

  7. weary mother permalink

    I have also heard of a new laser type treatment used in USA for treatment of bipolar disorder…it is available privately in this country I understand.

    I also understand the potential implications of using antidepressant drugs where people have this disorder.

    Given choice that a loved will die or accept ECT…then the choice is obvious.

    I heard a psychiatrist say that some current treatments of mental ill health are as useful as ‘wearing a blind fold gloves and a trowel to mend a watch’.

    But ……surely ………if there are sufficient staff who are experienced and compassionate – staff and clinicians who understand the patient really well – and fully involve the family in achieving this understanding – AND the hospital has made it a mandatory priority to have NO means of suicide such as ligature points in the vicinity. And permit enough in patient time for the more gentle therapies to have a chance – perhaps some – even very ill patients – could heal ….without ECT.

    (If the reply is not enough money for the above….then that is whole new argument around ethics and the use of ECT ?)

    • Judy permalink

      A tiny minority of people are treated with ECT and it is (certainly only should be) used where nothing else has worked. Either medication or therapy.

  8. Weary mother, there often aren’t sufficient familiar staff, as turnover and staffing levels are not good.
    But who wants to work in miserable looking hospitals and care homes (many of them, not all)?
    We have to make these places attractive.

    Let’s first make these places look more natural.
    We don’t need ‘low stimulus’ pale bare walls as an excuse for no clutter and reducing overstimulation, but normal aesthetics, comfort, detail in our surroundings.
    People with autism are very visual, more than we are, and need colour therapy and patterns and art, etc.
    Being respected starts with a normal physical environment.
    ‘Communal areas’ are not.

    Fully involving families, to me, means being led by families, as we’re more than equal and everyone knows it. We’re definitely not just to be ‘consulted’. We’re the person’s representatives, aren’t we?
    Family expertise would reduce misery overnight. We only want help, not a complete takeover.

    Sorry for blogging so much – going through stress.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Asylums – A Personal History — Love, Belief and Balls | Hannah's unprivate mind
  2. Asylums – A Personal History | danutag57

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