The curious relationship between truth and madness

I’ve got an article in The Observer on the misunderstood relationship between truth and madness.

The definition of a ‘delusion’ has just been changed so it no longer has to be considered a ‘false belief’.

It turns out that this issue turns up regularly in world events, owing to the sad tendency for whistle-blowers to be ‘accused’ of being ‘mentally ill’ when others don’t like what they’re saying.

It’s not clear who forcibly sedated her in 1972. It’s not certain that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward in the following year. What’s definite though is that many people thought she was mad as she ranted about conspiracies in the White House during eccentric phone calls to the press. Questions about Martha Beall Mitchell’s sanity were encouraged by the Nixon administration, who consistently briefed against her and probably had her medicated against her will. But ultimately her claims were proven correct when the Watergate scandal broke.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re not talking about the everyday use of the term ‘delusion’ (typically meaning mistaken) but the psychiatric definition which describes intensely held beliefs that are impervious to reality.

They are fascinating in many ways but, as the article discusses, they do not necessarily mean that the person is wrong.

Link to Observer article on truth and delusion.

Shuffle Festival

A festival of music, film and neuroscience is about to kick off in an abandoned psychiatric hospital in East London. Called Shuffle Festival, it runs from the 8th – 18th August.

It is happening in the old St Clement’s Hospital on Mile End Road and is being curated by Oscar winning film director Danny Boyle.

If you check the programme, August 11th is the ‘Day of the Mind’ where during the day you can enter for free and experience a host of neuroscience events, stalls and experiments.

Later in the evening there is an event with Ruby Wax, following by an extract of Luke Fowler’s R.D Laing documentary All Divided Selves.

After I’ll be taking part in a discussion about the legacy of R.D. Laing, neuroscience and mental health and later in the evening there’s the inevitable showing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The story of how I got involved in the event is a little curious. One Saturday, I decide to walk from Kingsley Hall, the location of R.D. Laing chaotic 60s experiment in mental health care, to Liverpool Street Station, the location of the original ‘Bedlam’ hospitals.

As I was passing St Clement’s Hospital I noticed some folks on the inside, shouted until I get their attention and asked if they could let me in. It turns out it was the organiser and friends scoping the place out.

I got to take some great photos, gave them my email address and despite starting the day by yelling excitedly at them, they’ve asked me to speak.

By the way, I’ve had a morbid interest in charting how some of London’s biggest Victoria asylums have been converted into luxury apartments but after the festival St Clement’s is going to be turned into affordable housing for East London which makes a nice change.

If you’re interested in the Shuffle Festival, a lot of the events are selling out quickly so grab tickets while you can.

Link to Shuffle Festival.

A notorious song

A song banned was banned by the BBC until 2002 because worries that it may cause a suicide epidemic. The piece is titled Gloomy Sunday and was written by the Hungarian composer Rezső Seress.

The following abstract tip-toes around the point that there is no evidence it ever caused suicides but the history and hand-wringing about the song are interesting in themselves.

Gloomy Sunday: did the “Hungarian suicide song” really create a suicide epidemic?

Omega (Westport). 2007-2008;56(4):349-58.

Stack S, Krysinska K, Lester D.

The effect of art on suicide risk has been a neglected topic in suicidology. The present article focuses on what is probably the best known song concerning suicide, Gloomy Sunday, the “Hungarian suicide song.” An analysis of historical sources suggests that the song was believed to trigger suicides. It was, for example, banned by the BBC in England until 2002. The alleged increase in suicides in the 1930s associated with the playing of the song may be attributed to audience mood, especially the presence of a large number of depressed persons as a result of the Great Depression.

The influence of music on suicide may be contingent on societal, social, and individual conditions, such as economic recessions, membership in musical subcultures, and psychiatric disturbance. Further research is needed on art forms, such as feature films, paintings, novels, and music that portray suicides in order to identify the conditions under which the triggering of suicides occurs.

There are lots of versions of the song, including the original, available on YouTube. As you might expect, the best is a version by Billie Holliday.

It is indeed kinda gloomy, but it’s hardly like to spark a wave of suicidal thinking.

There is, however, a minor history concerning how works of art affect real-world suicide practices.

Most famously, the Aokigahara forest in Japan at the base of Mount Fuji has become a common suicide destination after the characters in Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Kuroi Jukai end their lives there.

Link to abstract of article about ‘Gloomy Sunday’ on PubMed.