The Locked Ward

Memoirs of a psychiatric orderly.

Darkness and Devils

Why it is important to talk about mental illness.

I spent Thursday of last week in Oxford, amid the dreaming spires and ancient colleges, where some of the brightest young people of this generation study and research. I had been invited to speak by the University Union’s ‘Mind Your Head’ campaign, which aims to get people talking and thinking about mental health issues. Their website acknowledges that, even in a place so devoted to the mind and its potential, mental illness is poorly understood.

I support their campaign wholeheartedly. Mental illness is still, today, too little discussed, and too often hidden away as a sorry secret that people would rather no-one knew about.

As a child, I was unsettled by the fact that one of the older members of my family suffered from depression. Not from the fact of the depression itself — I could barely understand what that meant — but from the way in which it was rarely mentioned in the family, and not at all outside of it. Young as I was, it seemed to me that there was something shameful about this mystery illness, not to say something sinister. I got so that I was frightened to pass the person’s bedroom on the way to the lavatory, so scared was I of what might happen. Nothing happened, of course, other than my developing a bladder of steel, but the experience was quite eerie for a child. (So little was the illness discussed, even in my adulthood, that I did not know until my memoir The Locked Ward was published in January 2012 that this relative had undergone several courses of ECT.) My family were intelligent, loving and close. But it seems to me that this mental illness was considered a stigma, a blot on the family escutcheon, a sorrow they had been given to bear.

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But they were not alone in this. A prominent figure in the town had four children: two daughters and two sons. The daughters went to university and became teachers. The second son, let’s call him John, studied Law at Glasgow. The older son, let’s call him James, was immured in the asylum for many years. I realise now, looking back, that he suffered from schizophrenia, and would be in a secure ward very like the one I describe in my memoir. When people met the family on the street, they would ask after the children. “Is John doing well at Glasgow? Very good. And the girls? You must be so proud of them.” But no-one enquired after James, and the family never referred to him in conversation with outsiders. I have no doubt they loved him and visited him. But, on the outside, it was as though John had died. He was a non-person.

Mental illness is like anything else we hide away in the darkness and never discuss. If we lock something away from sight, in the attic or the cupboard under the stairs, the inevitable happens. In time, it grows horns. Then a spiky tail. Then it begins to breathe sulphur and scratch at the locked door. It becomes a demon and a bogeyman that we are then too terrified to contemplate.

I firmly believe that we must bring mental illness into the light. Let people see that it is an illness; not a spell or a curse. Psychiatric conditions, like physical ailments, can vary in severity, duration and frequency of occurrence. And they can be treated. As I have argued elsewhere, despite the many impressive advances in psychotropic medication over the years, the most effective resource in treating mental illness is the human touch: the caring, dedicated men and women who nurse us back to health. And that means family members and friends, as well as professionals. But we cannot fully utilise this resource so long as we hide mental illness away as something separate, or something to be ashamed of.

Which is why I was delighted to participate in Oxford University’s ‘Mind Your Head’ campaign last week. The team are doing a sterling job of keeping mental health issues to the fore in a city where so many young people are working hard, with some degree of pressure, often far from home for the first time. I salute them.

Dennis O'Donnell wrote The Locked Ward, a memoir of his time as a psychiatric orderly.

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