Absolutely Mental



Autumn in Britain is the best time to nourish the mind, and kicking off this month is another terrific exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London. The subject is Bedlam, and through the study of this institution in its three incarnations and asylums like it, uncovering the history of madness.

The Wellcome is a relatively small space, and the exhibition works best in conjunction with Mike Jay’s superbly assembled accompanying volume, ‘This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond’. You should also visit the intriguing interactive site here to explore certain aspects of mind influence, including mesmerism and hypnotism (and there’s a neat little experiment you can do while you watch).

One problem early doctors had when diagnosing unusual states of mind is the lack of physical evidence – it wasn’t like curing illnesses with visible symptoms – so inevitably a lot of mumbo-jumbo sifted into the experiments conducted on patients. A glass musical instrument designed to produce soothing sounds does exactly the opposite, elegant surroundings failed to help caged-bund patients, and so the history of madness becomes one of restraint, experiment, mockery, cheap entertainment and cruelty as ‘visiting the mad at Bedlam’ became an acceptable day out for Londoners.


Unusually, Mike’s book is fairly different from the exhibition, and inevitably goes into far greater detail. As in his previous ‘Medical London’, the approach here has been made highly accessible and readable in its relaxed format, which married elegant design with haunting descriptive passages. I remember reading doctors’ diagnoses on Bedlam patients at the London Metropolitan Archive, and was alarmed by the photograph of a poor young woman admitted suffering from ‘hereditary disappointment’. Doctors simply did not have words for what they found.

This ambitious exhibition deals largely with the physical sensation of mental illness rather than its history, and although enlightening, proves rather more slippery to get to grips with than Mike’s more encompassing historical work; I would like to have learned more about the admission rules for patients – what brought them to the point of undergoing ECT and other severe life-changing treatments? Typically the interviewed patients are obtuse and evasive, but of course that is in the nature of defining mental illness. There’s surprisingly little mention of modern chemical approaches, and whether they are merely more sophisticated versions of lobotomisation.

The show ends on a positive note with a wonderful model of a possible future asylum that looks like a cross between Tellytubby land and Hobbiton. The real secret to mental wellbeing clearly lies with inclusion, light, space, interaction and encouragement, not chaining and caging.

The exhibition is on from 15 September 2016 to 15 January 2017, and is free. ‘This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond’ is published by Thames & Hudson.

8 comments on “Absolutely Mental”

  1. snowy says:

    I’m going to try not to go on and on, so this might seem a little brusque/short.

    ‘hereditary disappointment’ isn’t a diagnosis or a condition. It appears on admission notes as if it is, but it just a ‘history’. [If it is not a sign or symptom, it’s history.]

    Hereditary, indicates some one else in the family has had either the same condition or was confined for any other reason. This could include an elderly relative with what would have been called ‘senile decline’, Any family with long lived members would have had one of those.

    Disappointment, is the approximate precipitating cause, some are quite plain descriptions others are slightly coded, depending on the sensibilities of whoever wrote or dictated the entry. ‘Disappointment’ could be just a simple shorthand for: was engaged, he broke it off and she has taken it badly.

    I could go on, [but instead, for those not yet sated a link above to a typical list of entries picked at random.]

  2. Vivienne says:

    One story about admission and ECT: my aunt was sent to an asylum aged 18. Her mother had died when she was 12 and my father 9. They were sent to live with one aunt or another until she finally thought she would be able to go back and make a home for her dad and brother. Then my grandfather remarried and when my aunt became simply depressed, he had her sectioned to be rid of her. In those days – early 30s – you were subject to whatever treatments they thought would work and she was given ECT. I did not know she was my aunt for a long time – she was called a ‘friend’ as it was too shaming to have a relative so circumstanced. The treatment resulted in her becoming completely institutionalised.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    There is such a bad history of how we have treated people with problems dealing with the world around them. (If we were paying proper attention we would all probably have difficulties dealing with the world around us.) A friend of mine has had difficulties since she was young and often drifts off. She had electric shock treatments at one point and said if she had anything to do with it would never let it happen again because she was left with a damaged memory and a whole set of problems with talking to people or being sure as to what was actually happening. I’ve never heard of anyone actually being better after these treatments, but I don’t know what they are intended to affect.

  4. snowy says:

    ECT is still on the books, used as treatment of last resort. They can dress it up as much as they like, but it is still passing a current through the brain to provoke a response that may have a theraputic effect. [Closer to witchcraft than science. But I’d better not start on that tack or this comment will go HUUUUGE!]

    [It’s a question of scale. You can unblock a toilet with a hand grenade, but I wouldn’t want to vouch for the state of your ceiling afterwards.]

  5. Jo W says:

    Snowy! Thanks for that last sentence, I’ll have that picture in my mind all day now! Yukk! 🙁

  6. Lynchie says:

    As someone who has undergone ECT in the past, all I can say is that it worked for me when I was clinically depressed. At that time, I was in no condition to agree or disagree to treatment. One of my sisters was asked to sign the consent form and I underwent about half a dozen treatments over a period of 2 /3 weeks. This happened in 1985 and I should point out that the circumstances by which ECT can be given have changed a lot since then. That said, an old friend of mine who was a psychiatric nurse and definitely not a fan of ECT told me months later that he believed I had benefited from it.

    I underwent more of these treatments 10 years later and last received ECT about 2005. I have never suffered any after effects as a result of these treatments. Indeed, after every one, I was able – almost immediately – to walk back to the psych ward while my accompanying nurse walked beside me shoving an unrequired wheelchair. For more than 10 years now, I haven’t been in a psych ward. Different people have different reactions to ECT. It’s not a treatment that works for everyone, but then neither is chemotherapy or radiation therapy – or a whole load of other medical solutions.

    Rather than imposing bans on such treatments as ECT, people who say they care about mental health should be demanding that their Government explain why it can take many months for people with a life threatening problem to get an appointment to see a psychiatrist. They should be asking why over the past 10 to 15 years, the NHS has shut down acute psychiatric wards and day hospitals throughout the country while successive governments claim they have increased spending on mental health services.

    Above all, they should be asking why it’s only in the past decade that mental health problems have been added to Government literature on disability benefits.

  7. C Falconer says:

    My sister-in-law’s sister also benefited from ECT treatment – although this was in France in the 1990s/early 2000s.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I am glad to hear that it does help people sometimes because all that I had heard was so terrifying. When you are on the outside all you can go by is what people tell you and I was disinclined to believe the “authorities”.

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