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Blog - Colin Hambrook

Bedlam, chaos and the fight to make Psychiatry truthful…


Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond at Wellcome Collection in London contains an assortment of historical documentation, artwork, ideas and presentations/ interventions. In giving a flavor of the history of mental hospitals, the attitudes and the treatment of people both within the asylums of old and within contemporary mental health service provision, the curation attempts the impossible within the confines of the Wellcome Collection in London – as indeed John O’Donoghue mentioned in his review.

Photograph of Madlove - Designer Asylum project a woman is looking at the blue diorama with pink model buildings

Madlove – Designer Asylum project in Bedlam at Wellcome Collection

However, Bedlam contains some gems. I loved the Madlove Designer Asylum exhibit. Having followed the project since the vacuum cleaner’s inception of an idea to re-imagine what good mental health looks, feels and tastes like, in the series of workshops he’s undertaken with Hannah Hull over the past 2 years.

The fanciful Madlove 3D architectural installation imagines a dream-like place incorporating key elements from research undertaken with mental health system survivors across the UK. The little touch of providing pencil and paper for people to make a record of their own responses to positive mental health was a nice reminder of how good mental health is everyone’s responsibility.

I would also recommend Core Arts’ contribution – a series of audio testimonies – easy to miss in the exhibition space itself as there is so much to see, read and listen to. But the pieces give mental health system survivors the opportunity to tell their stories and adds a touch of humour and pathos to the exhibition. Frank Bangay’s poem Those Shuffling Feet From The Past imagines the ghosts of incarcerated people haunting the blocks of luxury flats that many Victorian asylums have been converted into. What questions would they ask of the well-to-do usurpers of their previous home? How would the wraiths feel about people choosing to live in what was essentially a prison?

The exhibition contained an important reminder from the past for me personally. Abandoned Goods by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson is a 35-minute film, which blends archive footage and includes first-hand testimony from several artist/ patients during the 1970s.

Adolf Wolfli, Mental Asylum Band-Copse painting of people emerging from chimney-like structures

Adolf Wolfli, Mental Asylum Band-Copse, 1910 © Adolf Wolfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts Berne, Berne

It recalls the art studio at Netherne Hospital in Surrey where I volunteered on a few occasions in the late 1970s – as a teenager looking for answers as to the veracity of psychiatry. I’d experienced – albeit second hand – some of the worst excesses of psychiatric torture (otherwise known as treatment) and I wanted proof of how to refute the science of psychiatry and the reasoning behind using punishment as ‘cure’.

Edward Adamson set the studio up in 1946 when art replaced photography as a diagnostic tool. Something in the region of 200,000 artworks were created up until Adamson retired in 1981. The film documents the struggle to preserve and archive the artworks left to dereliction after the institution closed in 1994. Today around 5,500 pieces survive.

During the few visits I made as a volunteer I remember how wonderful much of the artwork was, but don’t recall meeting any of those using the studio who actively saw themselves as an artist. Abandoned Goods contains incredible footage of Maria Popova – in particular – speaking eloquently about her exquisite paintings on stone and flint, collected from the hospital grounds. Adamson encouraged her gift for expressionism. And in response she talks about herself as an artist – but one who ‘could do better’. It’s heart-wrenching stuff that speaks volumes about a psychological struggle to gain self-esteem in an environment that denies any.

The film also documents psychiatry’s obsession with disabling people. It examines American psychiatrist Henry Cotton’s introduction of ‘treatments’ given to inmates during the 1930s – 50s. Based on the idea of ‘sepsis’ as a cause of psychosis, hospital staff set about removing as many bits of the human body that they could whilst still keeping the person alive. Teeth, tonsils, kidneys…anything that could be was removed in the delusion that to do so would ‘cure’!

I remember the toothless wrecks of human beings that were the dregs of the aftermath of Victorian ‘charity’. The lie that their physical deterioration was the result of ‘mental illness’ not the torture they’d been subjected to, fuels my anger at Psychiatry to this day.

Richard Dadd's portrait of Sir Alexander Morison showing him stood against a pastoral scene

Richard Dadd, Sir Alexander Morison, 1779 – 1866. Alienist, courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

My day at Bedlam ended with a powerful evening event hosted by Wellcome. Mental Fight Club founded in East London by Sarah Wheeler in 2007 has given birth to RE:Create Psychiatry – a well-choreographed series of provocations by artists and health professionals. Seth Hunter and Dr Khaldoon Ahmed invited a series of 5-minute testimonies, which were then discussed by service-users, carers and care professionals.

The process allows contentious debate between psychiatrist and service-user to happen in a way that is productive for both parties. Artist/ performer Ellie Stamp introduced the idea of ‘psychiatry: an ethos of ‘being with’, but a practice of ‘doing to’’. She talked about her experience of the incredible power imbalance that exists and the binary mindset of the medical profession. She said she wanted to live in a world where “neuro-diversity is accepted and valued as necessary.”

Ellie’s presentation then gave room for a response from Dr Lauren Gavaghan, talking about how as doctors ‘doing to’ is a necessary and important part of medical training. If you have a cancerous growth that needs removing or a broken bone that needs mending, you don’t want your doctor asking how it feels or what your experience of being a patient is? You want them to act and to be able to make decisions with confidence built up through years of accumulating knowledge.

Doctors specialise in Psychiatric practice, having already completed their medical training. Lauren spoke about how the move from clinical practice doesn’t involve training on ‘being with’; of listening to the actual experience of the patient or responding human to human.

There is a disconnect here – a point early on in training at which the medical model over-rides any impulse to value the patient as the person who possibly has the expert knowledge of the condition they are living with.

On the other side of the argument, instant life or death decisions are often demanded of the mental health worker/psychiatrist, which involve taking action, sometimes against the individual’s immediate wishes. There are no easy solutions as to how to support someone through a mental health crisis, but the medical profession is based on principles of ‘observation’ and ‘documentation’, not on listening to, or even believing what the patient has to say.

Unlike other fields within medical practice, diagnosis represents a ‘legal’ status, as well as a clinical status. If you deny that you’re ‘mad’, your stay on the locked ward will last longer. If you play the game and admit that your ‘mad’, then you’ll be deemed as ‘on the road to recovery’. In a sense Psychiatry is in the business of creating a pact with the Devil in its bid to do good.

The template for a series of 5 minute provocations and 10 minute responses was particularly well considered. Psychiatry needs some ‘re-creation’. The dependence on disabling medications just makes more people more, well… dependent. These are the kinds of conversations that need to happen more…

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