Mental health treatment: a personal history

Last weekend I watched the film ‘Mad to be Normal’, the story of Scottish psychiatrist Dr R D Laing, starring David Tennant.  Laing trained and worked at the Glasgow Mental Hospital before travelling down to London, where he founded a therapeutic community, Kingsley Hall in 1965. The community remained open until 1970. His radical approach to the treatment of mental illness polarised views to some extent at the time, yet ultimately influenced the view of psychiatry in Britain.

The film followed events at Kingsley Hall when he treated, or rather didn’t treat, a small group of psychiatric patients, male and female, living together in a house where he also lived with his lover. The film opens with a disclaimer about “actual events or persons not being depicted” although according to commentators much of the storyline was based on facts rather than fictions. The mental illnesses of the patients included psychosis, schizophrenia, post-natal depression, and other deep depressions, and the only ‘medication’ Laing administered to everyone living within the community, including himself, was the psychedelic drug LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide).

The film I found distressing. Not because of what it portrayed, although that was not without impact, but it was the memories it triggered.
One of the young men was first seen on the kind of ward that was prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s. Dormitories were arranged bed – locker – bed – locker, with hardly space between. No wardrobes, little privacy, just as when I was a patient in Warley Mental Hospital (Essex) 1969 – 1971 and in Southern General Hospital psychiatric unit (Glasgow) in early 1970.

There was also a realistic portrayal of Electro Convulsive Treatment (ECT), the practice of passing a controlled electric current through the brain to treat severe depressive and psychotic symptoms illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The treatment was not new, but by 1970 muscle relaxants and anaesthesia were used to avoid physical harm due to the seizure and pain from the electric current.

Early January 1970 aged 19 years and at university 400 miles from home, I was admitted to Southern General Hospital psychiatric unit. While there my treatment was the antipsychotic Chlorpromazine (Largactil) which I took as a thick brown liquid, and ECT. All treatment was administered on the recommendation and authorisation of the doctors. So young, so far from home, and seriously ill, I had no-one to advocate on my behalf, and until my parents arrived to drive me home sometime in March my only visitors were representatives from the students’ union and my English tutor.

From August – October 1969 I had been a patient in Warley Hospital. As an 18 year old bowed down by the weight of her first mental breakdown, the façade of the extensive High Victorian Gothic building was imposing.

Warley Hospital, formally Brentwood Mental Hospital. It opened September 1853 as Essex County Lunatic Asylum.

Inside Warley: In contrast to its expansive persona, the long, winding internal arteries of the hospital were stark and unforgiving.

In May 1970 I was back on ‘Marigold’ ward.
Same staff, different patients, same routine, different doctors.
The ward’s locked door opened into a large open space: to the right was the day-room, and to the left the kitchen and another door that was kept locked – the ‘padded cell’ once glimpsed and rarely spoken of; there were dining tables and chairs and the next door to the right opened into the main ‘veranda’ dormitory; along the left were single rooms and a smaller dormitory; at the end was the office, nurses’ station, and wash block.

In July that year I was transferred to a therapeutic community. Triggered memories of that establishment was the most upsetting aspect of the film, and further research over the past week revealed why.