The world is but a great Bedlam, where those that are more mad, lock up those who are less – Thomas Tryon, 1689
The glorious Wellcome Collection in London is currently hosting a free mind-fuck, I mean exhibition, which kind of charts the evolution of mental health care via the story of the notorious Bedlam. AKA Bethlem Royal Hospital in the south of the UK capital, founded in the 13th century and still providing care today as part of SLAM, the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, within which my late brother had the pleasure of a few Sectionings.
My heart hurt pretty much from the outset of this exhibition; I felt the tingling of anger at times but this mostly gave way to the crushing sadness that it’s just a cover for anyway.
What a planet we inhabit, chaining people to walls because they’ve seen some version of ‘god’, had a child out of wedlock or just looked the wrong way at the wrong person at the wrong time. Not to simplify the issue: I’ve worked in mental health care in the homeless sector and been alone on shift when brick shithouses of men were experiencing psychosis, one wielding a sword one time and another pacing around explaining his pressing urge to rape.
But there’s a picture near the beginning of this Wellcome exhibition of a dude called James Norris who was shackled to a wall in Bedlam for ten years (TEN!). Like the shit that most likely happened to him to make him act MAD (*horror-movie screams*) wasn’t bad enough, there’s no hint of trying to meet with James in a physical, mental or emotional space comfortable for him to consider communicating what’s going on with him so that the story can be unwound and any hope of ‘fixing’ it uncovered. So fucking sad.
But that’s the point of the exhibition I suppose: to demonstrate that things have got a bit more humane since James’s ordeal. Or have they? (James was eventually unshackled, if you’re wondering. He died a few months later because his health was so poor.)
1800 stands out as a landmark year because then a man called Philippe Pinel reckoned chaining people to walls wasn’t that great and that listening to them and involving them in their own treatment might have something to it. A symbolic picture of him shows him releasing the inmates of a hospital in Paris from their chains.
The exhibition has proper stop-in-your-tracks-and-fixate-for-ages art and audios and films and that, including a riff on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by psychiatric patients in Berlin. I like the note accompanying this flick which explains that the German word for ‘mad’ translates as ‘shifted’… someone or thing that’s not where it’s supposed to be. Or, I prefer to think, shifting to where it needs to be but struggling with this, because it’s a bit painful and that, and the right care and ‘meaningful activity’ make a considerable difference in this regard.
There’s a whole spiel in the exhibition about some Irish bird called Dympna, which I thought was a bit random until I read that she became the patron saint of the ‘mentally distracted’ after fleeing from Ireland to Belgium hundreds of years ago.
She had clocked that her grieving father wanted to shag her after his wife (Dympna’s mum) died and he went a bit mad. He caught up with her and cut her head off with a sword, apparently, then eventually a church was built in her honour.
Pilgrims looking for some help around mental health and that flocked to this gaff (Geel, the town is called), and it got to the point where townspeople started offering to take the afflicted into their homes – which they continue to do to this day. Care in the community, of a kind.
So basically Dympna’s woes were happening around the same time Bedlam was set up, so not really that random that she features in the exhibition after all (still a bit random though, maybe that’s just me).
Being from an Irish Catholic background, obviously I’m all over that Dympna baby bib you can see in the photo. Maybe the keyring too, can’t beat a good saint keyring.
I need to mention the part featuring Vincent Van Gogh in a nod to my brother, a big fan and imaginer that he carried the spirit of the Dutchman in some ways (his doctors, of course, attributed this to psychosis).
L’Homme à la pipe is Van Gogh’s 1890 sketching of his doctor Paul Ferdinand Gachet, who treated him after he was released from Saint-Rémy asylum.
He described Gachet as ‘a readymade friend and something like a new brother… he’s very nervous and very bizarre himself ’.
A tip of the hat, also, to RD Laing and his suggestion that schizophrenia is not so much a disease as a way of coping with unbearable situations, featured among a selection of books by the dissenting voices of the 60s who weren’t keen on this asylum craic at all.
So the Bedlam exhibition is a mercurial maelstrom of devastation and beauty, ending on some kind of note of optimism by depicting how a Utopian mental health hospital might look and work on the back of suggestions from people who’ve experienced mental distress.
Gary (ten years as an inpatient) knows the score: his ‘perfect day in the perfect asylum’ features waking up smiling, writing five things in his gratitude journal, walking to Core Arts for painting, practising mindfulness and ‘not being so hard on myself’.
Clo (three years in hospital) wakes up to cuddles and an exciting mission, breakfasts on freshly picked fruit and sings loudly to power ballads/completes the mission before exercising and having a power shower with ‘loads of suds’.
Wesman (12 years in hospital) jumps straight into his en-suite jacuzzi of a morning and visits the kitten room in the afternoon, following a trip to look at clownfish then lunch and a siesta. Before bed he visits a polar bear and feeds it some fish (not the clownfish).
I visited this exhibition twice to really absorb it: it’s lengthy and quite detailed so I was obviously wrong to go on an empty stomach the first time round. But it’s also a lot to process emotionally – perhaps take your cue from our previously quoted pals and schedule in some clownfish/other such self-care for afterwards.