Talking about the taboo

An articulation of frustrations on society's perception of mental illness


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You are not an uneducated Victorian

For the placement year of my Psychology degree, I will be working in a psychiatric hospital. When this comes up, the obligatory congratulations are sometimes followed by “You’re brave”, “Don’t you find that scary?” or the more common 'I’d-rather-you-than-me' face. Although it will of course be challenging, I am not brave and no, I don’t find it scary.

Psychiatric hospitals and mental asylums are not synonymous. Psychiatric wards no longer resemble Randle McMurphy’s experience in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'.

The houses I will be working in are surrounded by green space. The rooms are fairly small, but personal, light and airy. The communal kitchen and living areas are comfortable and well-equipped. It reminded me of university halls – pleasant, but perhaps not somewhere that you would want to live forever.

And this is the point – such places are generally not a fixed address. Institutionalisation in the UK has been left in the 50s, but unfortunately public perception has not had the same revolution. In mental asylums, a century ago and in the 1940s – yes - those with poor mental health were sometimes chained to the wall, pumped with inappropriate medicine, institutionalised to only function within the ‘madhouse’ and subject to lobotomies - because apparently removing parts of the brain seemed an excellent way to restore a fully-functioning and ‘normal’ individual at the time.

But this is not representative of 2014. Back then, hiding away and asserting control over the vulnerable and powerless was society’s aim. Now, it is recovery. A few months is often the average stay on a psychiatric ward. The aim is to reach a point where one can function within society and to be given consistent support to live a ‘normal’ life, whatever that may be. Values and aims have changed. Awareness and attitudes towards the modern psychiatric hospital have been left behind – ignorance and an unnecessary fear continue to feed the stigma attached to mental illness.

My Mental Illness and Me...

On jstJSH

One night a few weeks ago I found the grasp of sleep once again elusive and turned to the comforting glow of the tellybox like so many do. It was the small hours of the morning where babes are at their station and drunken insomniacs are gambling on virtual roulette tables and phoning in late night quiz shows with wrong answers. Hopping from channel to channel I came across a documentary on Channel 4 entitled, 'Mad Confessions'.

Funny woman Ruby Wax was presenting the show, and I've always been a massive fan of her work, so I made a cuppa and nestled into my snuggie for an hour of early morning laughs and delight. Whilst the show was incredibly entertaining there was a very serious message. Here is the official channel 4 synopsis of the show:

Audiences remember Ruby Wax as the larger-than-life comedian. Now her career has taken a different turn: 'I've become the poster girl for mental health,' she says.

Building on the success of her mental health stage show, during which the audience is encouraged to speak openly about their own experiences, in this documentary Ruby campaigns to break down the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.

She wants to support people who choose to stand up and be honest about their condition, and follows three successful businesspeople as they disclose their mental illness to their employers and, in some cases, their friends.

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