Asylums, churches, and the retreat of the institution…

I was in Lochgilphead today, with a series of meetings- including one at Argyll and Bute hospital. The building dates from 1862, and is one of the very few Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ still in use today.

Lovely old building it might be, but it is a total anachronism. Built to house hundreds of patients from all over this area, only a handful of the original wards are still open, whilst the cost of maintaining the structure eats away at resources desperately needed by community services more fitted to present day understanding of treatment and support of people experiencing mental ill health. It is hoped that a new purpose built facility will (hopefully) replace it soon…

It stopped raining today, and I decided to take the camera into the woods at lunchtime.

I walked into a forest that until recently was managed by a woodland project run by patients from the hospital. The project has lost it’s funding now, as patient numbers have dwindled, and as segregated projects like this are now regarded as a potential obstacle to recovery, as they are not supportive of integration back into the community.

It was lovely though…

The subject I was chewing on as I walked, was the huge change that this areas has seen. The hospital was built as a means of providing what was regarded as much needed humane treatment of ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’. These very terms are now insulting and offensive, but at the time the hospital was progressive, impressive and planned to ‘scientific’ principles.

Even the trees I walked in were planted as a means of sheltering (or perhaps hiding) the hospital.

Evidence of the attempts to use the forest as a resource were everywhere- the notices describing different trees, the carvings, the rough wooden tables- and this…

I think it was built to make the best of a view, but in effect, it stands as a temporary monument to a rather meaningless industry.

A bridge into nowhere.

The people that made it are no longer in the hospital. I hope and pray their lives are rich and meaningful, and that the time spent working in these woods is a happy memory. But the fact is, such forms of occupational therapy are no longer part of common psychiatric practice.

And I thought of that other late Victorian institution that I am so familiar with- the modern protestant church. The buildings that were the places of the Protestant institutions still adorn all of our towns and cities- many are lovely too. Most of them are just as empty as this old hospital.

The parallels are pretty obvious. What both offered was good- perhaps even the best of what was possible in their day. They were raised with such energy and optimism. They changed the landscape of their times.

But as time passed, the rituals and routines that they followed became less and less in tune with the wider world. In some case, it was even toxic– what started off as an enclave of hope, became a backwater, where lives stagnated. Escaping such situations can be so very hard…

And what industry there is continued to look towards the institution. It was contained within the stone walls and the boundary fences.

And bridges were built to nowhere.

There will be a new hospital soon, which will not be perfect- there will be more compromises, more challenges- but we hope that the focus will shift to outside these old stone walls and into our homes and houses- where real lives are situated.

I kind of hope the same for church…

Miranda Epstein- cartoons about recovery


Following on from my earlier post about mental illness stereotypes and the Mental Health Machine, I thought I would post some more of Miranda Epstein’s wonderful cartoons. Check out her site here.

I think they speak for themselves.

(Click to enlarge)