A woman named Ellen Baxter goes to a mental institution to visit her mother. What she sees startles her. Her mother sits in a wheelchair, her speech is incredibly slurred, and she is clearly, heavily over medicated.
This was a moment described in an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, from NPR. This is the stereotypical example everyone thinks of when they hear “mental institution.” People drooling, with their heads tilted awkwardly to the side, eyes glazed over. It is a scary thought. This sort of image is the reason “mental institutions” have such a negative and frightening stigma.
But I work in a psych unit, and it’s not like that. My patients don’t drool, and they don’t have glazed over eyes.
This episode of the podcast is dedicated to the idea of solving problems. It begins with a family of a million girls, and the horrible, but inevitable issue of drain hair. And how they managed to find a solution to vastly easier drain cleaning. It is just a quick example of the innovation and ability to solve even the most obscure problems. But at about the 6 minute 15 second mark of the episode, we get to the meat of the matter. We hear Ellen Baxter’s story.
Ellen actually ran from home, and her mentally ill mother the first chance she got. She went to college and became a psych major. Influenced by her visit to the institution where her mother was, she made it her mission to find a more humane way to treat mental illness. She put herself through the experience most people would be too afraid to do. She fakes a mental illness and gets checked into an institution. While most people are probably suddenly hearing the Eagles song Hotel California, Ellen only stayed for one week. One week was enough time for her to see and understand that there really wasn’t any useful therapy provided to the patients. When asked what the patients did all day then, Ellen answered that they watched TV, they stared out the window, and they waited for the bell to ring. The bell that tells them it’s medication time, that tells them it’s snack time… She said she could “almost see the humanity of the people evaporating.”
And the more I thought about this description, the more I realized it actually sounded uncomfortably close to the day-to-day of the unit I work on.
I graduated college with a bachelors in Psychology also. I think I also had a deep seeded desire to help people. To help find a way to guide them through their most personal struggles. I am not a nurse, so I can’t give my patients medications. So I have to work twice a hard to find ways to help them through their crisis. Whether it is a cup of double bagged chamomile tea to help ease their anxiety, a warm blanket to ease their fear, a shower to burn off some steam, or just someone to talk to. I had decided a long time ago that the most important thing was to see each person as an individual rather than a patient, to remember that they are at possibly the lowest point of their lives, and to remember that, for some of them, this is the first time they will have someone who is there to support, and listen to them. And if I can’t do anything else for them, I can certainly listen to them, and to remind them that they are still worthy of someone’s attention.
Ellen Baxter sat down and did some research to find a place where “dependent and disabled people were not thrown away.” What she finds is a town in Belgium called Geel.
This town has an extraordinary way of dealing with its mentally ill population. They are taken into the homes of the towns folk and cared for. The obvious question that burned on Ellen’s mind, and probably many many others was, isn’t it a burden?
Every single host family she asked said, “no.” Apparently this tradition had gone back all the way to the 1300’s. For the towns folk, this way of life is just normal. The mentally ill of the town are treated as any other member of the town. And while hosting some of these individuals can be difficult at times, they do not see it as being any more difficult than dealing with an outburst by someone who is not deemed mentally ill.
What made these towns folk so different in their treatment of the mentally ill, is simple acceptance. They do not see mental illness as something than needs fixing. The host mother allows her boarder to nervously twist the buttons off his shirt, and each night she would sew them back on. While this seems tedious, she is not burdened by doing it. This is just an aspect of who this man is, and she accepts it. The man who hallucinates lions coming out of the walls, his host mother would simply chase the lions away, and the man feels relief.
While it’s easy to imagine how this method with the mentally ill could fail in so many ways, somehow it is managing to work. Maybe allowing each mentally ill person to remember that they are human has some benefits.
It is certainly something I see less and less on my own unit. I see it less in the community as a whole. Mental health has such a negative stigma, it is treated as almost a death sentence. While individuals gain the label of “mentally ill,” along with it seems to hang the label “doomed,” and society turns its back on them. It breaks my heart to see how little funding there is for mental health resources, how alone people suffering from mental illness feel, and how scared they are to seek help.
I think what makes a town like Geel so successful is that the mentally ill aren’t taken somewhere to be hidden like a stain from society, they aren’t taken somewhere with the expectation of walking out the doors “fixed,” they are taken somewhere to be supported and treated as a human.
These were only my thoughts on the first half of the podcast. There is a whole other half hour continuing Ellen’s mission for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.
Here is a link to the full podcast episode. The Problem with the Solution.
Here is a link from NPR exploring the episode deeper, with links and resources.
Here is a link to an article written by Angus Chen for NPR on the town of Geel and this boarding program, titled For Centuries a Small Town has Embraced Strangers with Mental Illness.