From madhouse to medication

I just watched a thought-provoking BBC documentary called Mental: A History of the Madhouse which follows the history of British psychiatric treatment in the 20th century from the monolithic mental hospitals inherited from the 1800s to the development of ‘care in the community’ at the end of the century.

If you’re based in the UK you can watch it on the BBC’s streaming service but I also notice that it has appeared on various public torrent servers. *cough*

It’s definitely a dissenters look at history as the professional commentators, such as psychiatrist Joanne Moncrieff and psychologist Rachel Perkins, hail from the most critical end of mental health.

It’s probably true to say that 20th century psychiatry was not exactly a litany of success stories, although it would have been useful to hear some of the more positive angles as well.

However, I was interested to hear that one of the major figures in the removal of the old mental hospitals was conservative politician Enoch Powell who secured his place in history with his rabidly anti-immigration 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (synopsis: ‘we fought the war and now there are darkies everywhere!’).

Years earlier, however, he gave a speech that cemented his determination to dismantle the old hospital system and he didn’t mince words.

They imply nothing less than the elimination of by far the greater part of this country’s mental hospitals as they exist today. This is a colossal undertaking, not so much in the new physical provision which it involves, as in the sheer inertia of mind and matter which it requires to be overcome. There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defences which we have to storm…

The speech reads very strangely today as it was clearly the beginning of huge reforms while openly talking about ‘sub-normals’.

The documentary is well worth checking out. It largely focuses on the story of one hospital, High Royds, in West Yorkshire.

Interestingly, the hospital has had two rock tributes to it. The Kaiser Chief’s song ‘Highroyds’ and Kasabian’s album named ‘West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum’, riffing on its original name.

Link to info about the documentary.

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