Today is World Mental Health Day so it seemed an appropriate day to review Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in central Londo. I visited this exhibition during an extended lunch-break from university and whilst usually I prefer to spend my spare time avoiding deadlines and catching up with friends, for personal reasons this exhibition was of interest. Because I’m one of them. One of the 10%. Still no clue?
10% of English people will suffer from depression in their lifetime.
Every year one in four of us will suffer some sort of mental health problem.
Whilst the Bedlam exhibition showed the improvement in care of those once considered hysteric, melancholic, insane and disturbed and the change from what was the neat Georgian facade of eponymous Bedlam hospital then in London’s Moorfields, hiding an interior of broken individuals treated like zoo animals, shockingly visited on the tourist circuit of contemporary London. But the exhibition ended with a challenging question – what has the asylum been replaced with and are they still needed. Whilst the asylum is traditionally seen by some as an outdated and inhumane practice replaced by therapy and care in the community they are also seen by many suffering from mental health issues as “a safe space to be ‘mad.’” The world asylum after all means place of refuge.
The asylum had evolved from that 18th century hell-hole to institutions such as the Netherne Hospital in Surrey which was a pioneering centre of art therapy where around 100,000 art works were created in under thirty years. Other similar institutions had music rooms, entertainment programmes and provided work placements on farms and in craft workshops. A far cry from the idea of endless sombre padded cells (even though yes these were commonly used as a means of self-protection before the advent of many forms of medication). In 1961, Health Minister Enoch Powell announced the closure of these apparently unwieldy institutions and no more funding allocated towards updating their facilities – an announcement that came as a complete surprise to the medical profession with only a handful of experimental care in the community schemes. It was heart-breaking hearing the account of former patients returning to the familiar grounds of Netherne during it’s conversion into luxury apartments and being moved on.
Unfortunately the government’s current climate of austerity politics has also not been kind to mental health services. Last year the government cut this sectors NHS budget by nearly 10% and they receive only 13% of NHS funding despite accounting for a fifth of the illnesses suffered by those in the UK. At one point in 2014 there were even no mental health beds available in the hospital units that replaced those in the asylums.
This is why World Mental Health Day is important because it gets us talking about a topic that still unfortunately is a taboo, and hopefully through these conversations we can help turn society itself into this missing safe space. As sobering as the statistic is that 1 in 4 of us suffer from the mental health issue every year, it also shows you are not alone. Whilst talking about my experiences with friends (even if it is with my stereotypical black humour) hasn’t personally alleviated my depression, a while ago I found out that it has helped someone realise what was happening to them and that they had someone they could empathize with about the extreme nothingness and white noise in both our heads. Normalizing these tragically common issues won’t necessarily “cure” them but it helps remove the sense of isolation and shame, creating a society that doesn’t look it problems in the dark.
I could analyse the Bedlam exhibition in my normal terms about layout and exhibits and whilst at times the Wellcome Collection’s displays do feel disjointed or underdeveloped, I still thoroughly recommend a visit regardless. Some of the stories told here are amazing such as the development in care in the community in the small town of Geel in Belgium, home to the shrine of St Dymphna (patron saint of the mentally ill), and where the “uncured” were often abandoned by relatives and taken in by the community as live-in workers on farms providing the earliest example occupational therapy that continues to this day.
Another exhibit at first made me laugh at its absurdity – a glass harmonica. This instrument made of interlocking glass bowls was invented by Benjamin Franklin and the sound of which apparently provided relief to those suffering from a variety of ailments, although others state it potentially drove them mad! Mozart even composed a piece for this bizarre creation. Whilst at first this idea seemed outlandish, music has played a key role in helping me get through the darker days by drowning out the voices constantly dragging me down and also introducing me to some amazing artists.
Music, writing, travelling, taking the time to cook proper food (not resorting to microwavable junk) and even writing endless minutely detailed to-do lists to help me function as a human being during my rough patches have helped me personally, far more than simply popping pills that made me feel unsure if my good days were simply medically induced. However everyone requires different treatment which is why mental health awareness is so important especially when you consider the current health service statistics above. So hopefully this massive ramble serves some purpose and happy mental health day. Why happy? Because today I can remember I’m not alone but one of that 10%.