A history of the Madhouse documentary

I watched this BBC documentary today called A history of the Madhouse. Be warned that it is not for the sensitive viewer and if you don’t know much about the history of asylums and the treatments they performed, you might be quite shocked and horrified. I was, even with my limited knowledge. Dorms with 32 beds, every inch of the place locked up, padded sound proof cells, abuse by nurses, early forms of ECTs with no anesthesia, insulin treatment, lobotomies. The poor crazies (and actually not so crazies) at the time really got it in the 30s to 50s especially. Some went in for one week of observation and only left 5 years, 20, 30 years later. Locked up and isolated from the world. Most of these people weren’t even mentally ill, just unwanted or problematic. Patients were not seen as people but as research projects. Many died from lobotomies and insulin treatment that sent them into comas to ‘reset’ their brains. We look back on these treatments and regard them as barbaric. Others, like a more refined form of ECT and Lithium, are still used today. Some of us owe our lives to the poor people who were subjected to these atrocities year after year.

I think of the private clinic that I frequented and cannot even imagine how it must have been to be locked up in an asylum. Margaret Thatcher can be thanked for them finally being closed in Britain. Problem was, the community care everyone was raving about didn’t really work since most of these poor people didn’t have a vocation or basic life skills. Many of them ended up on the streets or at the Salvation Army, which I suppose is better than the streets at least. Thatcher’s plan was to destigmatise mental illness, to have society view it as illness rather than madness. How she must be turning in her grave to see that these prejudices still exist world wide.

The documentary made me wonder, will some of the treatments that we are subjected to today also be viewed as barbaric 50, 70 years from now? Will people be appalled about how we’ve been medicating our lives away just to function within society’s norms? Or will what is done now be considered as ground breaking, pathing the the way for more specific and sophisticated treatment? I know that some research is being done at the Mayo Clinic about isolating genes and then determining your exact bipolar type so that treatment can be tailored for you needs. But how long is this going to take? Another 50 years? We can only hope that it’s sooner, since those of us with mental health issues are not having such a bloody good time of it.

There is hope, I suppose, one never knows. In the meantime I am extremely grateful to the people who had to subjected to life threatening and debilitating treatment like lab rats, so that I can sleep a bit sounder, or function a bit better.

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