Mental – A History Of The Madhouse Review: Crazy Times

May 17, 2010 by  
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MENTAL: A HISTORY OF THE MADHOUSE: Monday 17th May, BBC4, 9pm ALERT ME

Perhaps the most iconic of the representations of mental illness is the asylum – long regarded as prisons for the mentally disabled. Mental: A History Of The Madhouse is a documentary which explores how patients were treated in these institutes and the medical and social reforms which eventually led to their closure. It makes for moving and occasionally harrowing viewing with interviews with former patients and doctors alike

The main focus is High Royds in Yorkshire, one of Britain’s most famous institutions, which closed its doors in 2003. It’s exactly the kind of place that you’d envisage if you were to think of any Victorian horror novel – scenes from Dracula could easily have been set there and it’s a perfect staging ground for readings of Edgar Allen Poe, with long, endless corridors and a style of architecture that makes it loom over the surrounding countryside like a haunted castle.

It housed 2500 patients in its heyday, with 30 beds to a dorm and conditions which would make anyone baulk at its inhumanity. It functioned very much as a prison and patients were dumped there by the community for the slightest infraction. In fact, very common ailments which would be easy to treat these days would be reason to be locked up – everything from agoraphobia to claustrophobia and panic attacks.

Some of the treatments inflicted upon the patients there look like something out of a 1920s silent horror film – electroconvulsive treatments without anaesthetic, insulin coma treatment and frontal lobotomies – this was the era when the horror stories of brain science were actually true. And it wasn’t just treatments that were horrific – one former nurse recounts the habitual abuse of long-term patients, something chillingly called “thump therapy?.

But it’s not just about one institute; Mental also charts the shift away from physical treatment with introduction of psychiatric drugs and a widespread social shift in attitudes to mental health which started with the mental health act of 1959, which eventually led to the “Care In The Community? programme in the 80s.

It’s soberly narrated by Tamsin Grieg, but if anything it’s the interviews which really give the documentary its heart. An interview with a former patient who claims her life was a mess after she underwent radical surgery is particularly harrowing – the footage of electrodes being used to burn part of her brain is frankly stomach churning.

There’s a particularly mournful scene in which a retired former psychiatrist laments his decision to recommend 16 patients for lobotomy, which had no positive effects at all.

But for all the negative things said about asylums, there are some who believe that it actually offered exactly that, asylum – a place of sanctuary from the outside world. The same psychiatrist remarks that he doesn’t believe Care In The Community works because “the community doesn’t care?. It’s a dense and complicated question but at least one that can openly be asked these days instead of imprisoned behind ward doors.