Mental: A history of the madhouse . . . . Just how much has society changed

The BBC documentary Mental: A history of the madhouse was as fascinating as it was disturbing, a history of our society’s attitudes to mental health; the barbaric nature of medicine; asylums and and the general stigmatisation of the mentally ill.  (shown BBC 4 10pm 11/01/2011) The real question is whether the fundamental attitude of society is much different today than it was in the past?

Although quite clearly the barbaric treatments of the past and institutionalising individuals on the basis of having a lack of social skills or being different has stopped, society’s attitudes towards the mentally ill still appears somewhat troublesome. Fine platitudes of “care in the community” doesn’t necessarily lead to a more caring or understanding society.

Prejudice reigns in the workplace where companies are reticent to employ people who have a history of depression, even if that was one episode of situational depression. (Future Foundation, 2006; Quinn C, 2009) Chat show hosts regularly discuss illness, dismissing depression or stress/anxiety in an off hand manner . . . “oh I mean a real illness”. People who miss days of work due to depression are seen as shirkers or in some way cheating the system/work shy.

Depending on which study you look at, mental health issues effect anywhere between 1 in 4 to 1 in 10 people in the UK.  Women are twice as likely to suffer depression than males and 8million women end up taking medication for this illness in their lifetime. (Future Foundation, 2006; Buckland, D, 2011)

The new regime in recent years to reduce the bill of disability allowance has brought pressures on the most vulnerable people in our communities. The people least able to fight for their rights against authority are the mentally ill and the easiest to mislead and exploit. Several examples have come to my attention in recent months of individuals being mislead by the assessment process and the process itself making people more ill than when they started.

The media’s attitudes similarly use convenient stereotypes to colour their reporting.  The recent tragic murder of Joanna Yeates with the landlord being portrayed as the weird loner is one obvious case, another is the way health treatments are reported, the latest being Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, recently reported as an almost panacea explained with an economic background of how much money could be saved if only CBT was available. Perhaps it is not surprising that the media  likes to simplify every issue it reports but it does not add to the understanding of mental health issues.

The media has a tendency to report mental health issues with a link to crime or extreme behaviour which feeds into peoples fears. Then we have the inevitable reaction of not in my back yard, care in the community as long as they are not near me.

I am not saying things have not greatly improved in the last 60 years but it is a complex picture. There are a number of people who would benefit from a short time in an “Asylum” in the best sense of the word, ie, a place to rest and be safe. Indeed there would probably be less deaths from mental illness if this was available rather than only the rich being able to “check in ” to the priory when they wish.

Over the next few years society’s morals and patience will be tested. Financial crises, recession and rising prices along with the cuts in public sector funding will test all our compassion. Will the mentally ill be bottom of the list for funding and society’s priorities once again? Will the Big Society live up to any meaningful rhetoric?

With suicides inevitable to rise over the next few years as they do with economic downturns perhaps its time for us all to look at ourselves and question our attitudes and the way we view others different from ourselves. (Office of National Statistics, 2009)

Brimelow, A (2005), Demand for NHS ‘therapy network’, [online], BBC News website,  available at               

Buckland, D (2011), Mental Health problems hit 60% of women, [online], mirror website, available at                                  

Future Foundation, (2006), Mental Health:  The last workplace taboo, [online], The Shaw Trust website, available at                                             

Office of National Statistics, (2009), Suicide rates in the United Kingdom, [online], ONS website, available at

Quinn, C, (2009), Mind over matter, [online], Guardian website, available at


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