tue 25/06/2024

Mental: A History of the Madhouse, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Mental: A History of the Madhouse, BBC Four

Mental: A History of the Madhouse, BBC Four

Fascinating documentary about the secret history of asylums

High Royds asylum: from 1888 to 2003 the mentally unwell of West Yorkshire were treated hereZombola Photography

Most people’s experience of the 120 or so Victorian asylums that littered the UK landscape for more than a century is, thankfully, oohing and aahing over the “sophisticated and sensitive” conversions they have become, providing “astonishing, unusual and stylish” apartments, as estate-agent-speak has it.

Those fortunate enough to move into these beautiful new homes are doing so of their own accord, of course, but many of those held in their previous incarnations would have preferred to be anywhere else at all.

This documentary, made by Chris Boulding for the BBC’s Open University strand, provided a fascinating glimpse behind what were, for most of the asylums’ existence, firmly closed doors where, as one former nurse had it, patients would be better described as inmates. At their worst, he said, asylums were places where people were “dumped”, either by their family or the local authority; many were socially inadequate rather than mentally unwell and could be conveniently forgotten about once they were locked up.

But the film wasn’t all gloom and doom; its focus was on High Royds in Yorkshire, acknowledged as one of the more enlightened establishments and for many years a world leader in research into treatment of the mentally ill. Opened in 1888, it was one of the very last asylums to close, in 2003, and at its height was like a small town in itself, with 2,500 patients, comfortable accommodation in its extensive grounds for its staff, a library, a butcher, baker, cobbler and a dairy. It even had its very own railway station. It was, as High Royds’ fascinating online archive informs us, “a truly magnificent example of J Vickers Edwards architecture”.

High Royds sounds like a holiday camp compared to other institutions mentioned in the film, where dubious treatments - cack-handed lobotomies, ECT given for no discernible purpose, routine use of the anti-psychotic drug Largactil (aka the chemical cosh), even “insulin therapy”, in which patients were put into insulin-induced comas in the horribly mistaken belief that their minds would be cleansed of their demons when they awoke - were routine in years gone by. Archive footage of those treatments was shocking to watch, as were the first-hand accounts by former asylum patients, whose ailments would nowadays be recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder or mild depression. Decades later, their anger at misguided treatment and surgery almost jumped out of the screen.

The film threw up some fascinating facts, including one completely new to me - that Enoch Powell, that most maverick of politicians, was the first government minister to recognise that asylum regimes were an affront to human decency and that a more patient-based system of care needed to be introduced. His plan was formulated in 1961 and was the foundation of “care in the community”, which was enshrined in law only in 1990. The asylums were emptied almost overnight, leaving tens of thousands of people, most of them institutionalised after decades in care, unable to cope with everyday life. Support systems laid out in the 1990 Act were mostly not in place and many ex-patients found homes only in hostels run by the Salvation Army and other charities. Later, the system became discredited when former asylum patients committed serious crimes because they were no longer taking their medication - no wonder the system is known in some circles as “scare in the community”.

This was a fascinating programme, but Boulding was trying to do too much; part history of Victorian asylums, part history of psychiatric treatments, part social documentary on how the mentally ill are treated in the UK. I found the non-linear timeline confusing and it was also irritatingly even-handed - was emptying the asylums really a chance for “patients to start a new life” and “find a new self-confidence”, as the narration (read by Tamsin Greig) had it, or was care in the community a huge failure as, they told us, former health secretary Frank Dobson later admitted?

The asylums were not the problem per se; we know some people need to be in care for their and the wider community’s safety, and psychiatric treatment poses the eternal debate of individual versus collective rights. Perhaps the most honest appraisal was given by eminent psychiatrist Dr Henry Rollin, who said of care in the community, “I don’t think the community cares". Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Thank you for this interesting posting, Veronica, about 'Mental: a History of the Madhouse' on BBC4. Just one thing I'd like to add though is that High Royds was certainly as bad as other institutions regarding the dangerous and inappropriate treatment. My treatment (which I described in the programme) took place at High Royds. Patients there were routinely given the dubious treatments you mention, shown in the documentary. I think there is much to be learnt from the history of psychiatry. Some things have changed for the better (more openness, for example), but there is still no cause for complaceny.

An interesting programme, though I have to say that, from the point in time, that these places were closed and 'Care in the Community' was started up, some salient details were omitted and glossed over ... For instance, the rush to close these hospitals was far too hasty, and I know nurses who felt that most patients were poorly equipped to deal with the world outside these places. Secondly, that whilst the commentator stated that 'people were suspicious of the ex-patients and did not want to help them' was somewhat off the mark inasmuch that one of Joe Public's main concerns was in fact that they could see that these people were being 'dumped' into communities, without any backup support, and totally inadequate levels of staffing so that when problems arose, neither the ex-patients, or people within the community, knew who to contact, if help was needed. It's no wonder that the public were, and still are disenchanted and suspicious of the whole system. They have been left to fend for themselves, in an environment where little support of any kind is organised, leading to many having miserably lonely lives and from what I still hear, with the bare minimum of support from Social Services departments.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters