07 May 2010

Mental: A History of the Madhouse

High Royds Hospital near Leeds

High Royds Hospital near Leeds

TX 17 May, 9pm, BBC FOUR – 1 x 60mins

From frontal lobotomies to care in the community, Mental: A History of the Madhouse tells the fascinating and poignant story of the closure of Britain’s mental asylums.

In the post-war period, 150,000 people were hidden away in 120 vast Victorian institutions throughout the country. But mental health care in the UK has changed and today the asylums have all but disappeared, and most of the people who lived in them now live in the community. Commissioned by The Open University for BBC Headroom, Mental: A History of the Madhouse explores this seismic shift in mental health care and what it tells us about society’s changing attitudes to mental illness over the last sixty years.

Constructed around testimonies from patients, doctors and psychiatric nurses, the film uncovers the extraordinary array of experiences spawned by the asylums. Powerful first-hand accounts tell of abuse, oppression and struggle, but also instances of humanity and liberation. Interwoven into these testimonies are the important historical landmarks and characters, such as mavericks like Enoch Powell and R D Laing, whose radical visions played roles in challenging and ultimately closing down the asylum system.

The documentary focuses in particular on High Royds Hospital, near Leeds. With its landmark Gothic clock tower and endless corridors, it was the archetypal Victorian asylum, built to keep out of sight those deemed to be out of their minds. Some patients will never forgive this loss of their liberty; and others, who underwent experimental brain surgery, the theft of their personalities. Yet for many patients, institutions like High Royds offered genuine asylum from the complexity of a world they found difficult to cope with. During the medication revolution of the 1950s the hospital wrote itself into the medical history books when its doctors helped pioneer Lithium as a treatment for manic depression – a treatment still widely used today.

Tom Heller, Senior Lecturer at The Open University and one of the lead academics working on the programme, said: “Although asylums were a familiar sight on the outskirt of every major town, the general public seemed only too willing to shut their minds to what was going on behind the walls. But important lessons can still be learnt from the experiences of people associated with that phase in history – a phase of dealing with people who were rejected largely because they didn’t easily fit in to mainstream society.

Mental: A History of the Madhouse carefully weaves together moving personal testimonies and fascinating archive material, which really does give a feel for what it must have been like to have been in one of the large mental health asylums – either as a worker or as one of the people incarcerated with little hope of release. The programme focuses on historical events relating to the treatment of people deemed to be mentally ill, but the themes of human rights, professional power and the imperfections of medical treatment remain entirely relevant to current mental health services

“This documentary has been made just in time – while the survivors of those harsh regimes are still alive and while their memories remain so vivid.”

High Royds finally closed in 2003. Its buildings still stand tall – a monument to another epoch. But, as with so many other asylums, they have been sold off to be converted into flats. What High Royds and the rest really leave behind are the lives they transformed.

Mental: A History of the Madhouse is fully-funded by The Open University for the BBC. The programme is part of Headroom (www.bbc.co.uk/headroom), the BBC's mental health and wellbeing campaign, and was produced by Blakeway Productions.

To accompany the programme, The Open University has produced Sounds Mental: Creative voices in mental health – a free audio CD in which five artists talk about the links between creativity and mental health. To order a copy, viewers can call 0845 366 8015. In addition, the CD will be available through the accompanying programme website, which also contains more information about the issues discussed in the programme: www.open2.net/mentalhealth (the website will be live when the programme airs).


Notes to editors

Photos are available from BBC IPIX.

A second documentary, Sectioned (1 x 60 mins), complements Mental: A History of the Madhouse and will TX on 19 May, 9pm, BBC FOUR. Sectioned follows the journeys of three men with long-term mental health problems who are initially ‘sectioned’ (detained under the Mental Health Act).

Programme Credits
Mental: A History of the Madhouse is produced in partnership between The Open University and the BBC.

Executive Producer for the BBC is Clare Paterson; Executive Producer for Blakeway Productions is Denys Blakeway; Multiplatform Commissioning Executive for the Open University is Emma De’Ath; The Broadcast Learning Executive for The Open University is Kirsten Dwight; The Open University academic consultants for the series are Dr Tom Heller (Senior Lecturer in Health in the Faculty of Health and Social Care) and Mick McCormick (Lecturer in Social Work in the Faculty of Health and Social Care).

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