James Leadbitter aka the vacuum cleaner has been asking people how they would design a safe place to go mad, in a series of 3 hour workshops in the Royal Festival Hall. What would the ideal mental hospital be like? John O’Donoghue went to find out about the blueprint for a Madlove Designer Asylum.
Which illness accounts for 28% of demands on the NHS? Which illness is the biggest killer of men under 35? And which illness affects 1 in 4 of the population?
You probably guessed the answer from that last statistic. I’m referring to mental illness. If you’ve never been mentally ill yourself it’s highly likely you know someone who has been, whether they’re a family member, a friend, or a colleague.
James Leadbitter – aka ‘the vacuum cleaner’ – has been running workshops at the Southbank that pose a very simple question: if you could design your own asylum what would it be like?
I went along to hear him talk about the outcome of these workshops. They were open to all, whether people who had lived experience of mental health, carers, professionals, architects, or anyone interested in feeding in to ‘Madlove’, the project Leadbitter – in conjunction with his Producer, Hannah Hull – is currently touring as part of a consultative process.
He spoke for about 25 minutes in the JP Morgan Pavilion at the Royal Festival Hall.
The ‘pavilion’ – in effect a rather small room – was festooned with illustrations from the workshops, and a flipchart off to the left listed the prompts he’d used in the workshops to stimulate discussion: how does good mental health taste, smell, sound, touch, look?
Leadbitter told us about his own experience. He’s been having poor mental health since he was 19 – he’s now 34 – and showed us the Mission Statement from the NHS Trust where he’s most recently been receiving treatment.
This had the usual bland words about safety, care, and support, against a stylised background showing a green landscape, a butterfly, and a rainbow.
Leadbitter contrasted this with the reality. He showed a photo of a bed on the ward where he’s been a patient: a basic-looking utilitarian piece of furniture with a pale pink counterpane and a couple of sheets.
No green landscape. No rainbow. No butterfly.
He showed a sign listing all the times patients could go outside for a FRESH AIR & SMOKING BREAK: every two hours from 09.30. When you’re woken up at 7am that’s a long to wait for a smoke.
Leadbitter said that the conditions on a lot of wards meant that patients were no better off than prisoners. And if you’ve been sectioned then that’s exactly what you are.
Contrast this with input from the workshops. Participants dreamed of an asylum where there were no corridors, of walls that could change colour, of a Library with books floor to ceiling and DVDs filed under ‘Happy Ending’ and ‘Sad Ending’, where there was a Trampoline Room, a Tree House, a Smash Room, all laid out in a building set near a river close to a forest, where there were no passive-aggressive signs and the emphasis was on meditation, not medication.
Lest you think this was just some game that resulted in a nice chit-chat by the Thames Leadbitter and Hull are aiming to take this much further.
After some more touring and consultation they want to open a Day Hospital incorporating ideas such as those that came up this week on the Southbank.
Utopian dreamers? Eccentric English fantasists? Barking mad agitators?
Perhaps Leadbitter and Hull are all of these. But much more than this I think ‘Madlove’ – ‘Because asylum should be about love, not punishment’ – marks a radical moment in the history of mental health in this country.
A moment when we might just recover the real meaning of ‘asylum’ and see two visionaries and their fellow dreamers embarrass the government into addressing the parlous state of mental health provision.
And one day we might just see an asylum as beautiful, as restorative, and as inspiring as a‘Maggie Centre’.
Landscape, rainbows, butterfly. As standard, naturally.