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Review: Mental: A History of the Madhouse - disability arts online
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14 January 2011

By Colin Hambrook

photo of a victorian asylum

High Royds asylum

Watching the BBCs Mental: A History of the Madhouse last night was both depressing and refreshing, at the same time. The media has - until now - documented asylums with the mindset of an apologist.

Banstead, Belmont, Netherne and Cane Hill (all in Surrey) all featured in my childhood and adolescence. I survived 18 months in Fairmile near Reading in my early twenties as a volunteer. I've never recovered from the effects of the institutional violence that was part of the routine in those places. So it was something of a relief to finally see the history of the asylums told in a truthful light.

Asylums were built to be institutions of routine, abject cruelty. After madness was deemed a medical issue and they were converted into hospitals in the 1950s, the violence was dressed up as care. Through the testimonies of ex-staff and ex-patients this documentary told something of the terrible legacy of these imposing, gothic, victorian edifices. The mental institution was a station of social control; established as a warning against straying from paths of convention and self-censorship.

Madness didn't became medicalised until the early 20th century. Previously it had always been seen as a judgement of God. Asylums were built on this premise. They were built to keep the mad and poor off the streets - out of sight and out of mind. Inmates had no rights and were often subsequently subject to torture - which became justified as scientific as medical labels for mental illness became more sophisticated.

The BBCs documentary brought some of the detail to the fore through individual testimonies from individuals who were inmates from the 1950s through to the demise of the asylum in the 1990s. Margaret Thatcher was responsible for closing them down and ejecting countless thousands into the hands of 'care in the community.' Motivated by financial conerns, it nonetheless marked the end of a time when madness can be brushed under the carpet.

I remember the one time psychiatrist, turned anti-psychiatrist RD Laing as a prevailing voice of humanity in a sea of cruetly. The documentary briefly told one of his main insights - that insanity is a sane response to living in an insane world. He attempted to develop an understanding of mental illness - as a social construct, rather than as a chemical imbalance in the brain. His views were never accepted by the mainstream of psychiatry and he became subject to bad press in the 1990s as a newer generation of medication came on the market.

Produced by the Open University, the dedicated OpenLearn webpages feature the artwork of Yvonne Mabs Francis - an artist whose painting has a powerful resonance - reminiscent as it is of the paintings of Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. DAO blogger Dolly Sen features on the site as well, amongst a range of other artists. You can also order a free CD with personal stories from 5 artists of the way in which creativity has helped them with their mental health issues.

The second documentary in the series Sectionned: A History of the Madhouse is due to be broadcast on Tuesday 18 January

Mental: A History of the Madhouse is available on BBC i-player until 21st January