Psychiatry over 6 decades – From a personal perspective

Part 1 – The Sixties

I didn’t even know that I had visited a psychiatric ward at the age of eight (1961) until around thirty five years later, when my sister asked if I remembered visiting her at Friern Barnet Hospital. We were in the kitchen at our mum’s just after I had had a home visit from a psychiatrist and I was telling my sister how much I feared going into hospital. I looked bemused, “the only time I remember visiting you in hospital was when you had that accident and cut your arms on the window”. Suddenly it dawned on me as she looked at me quizzically, “Oh it wasn’t an accident was it?”, she laughed at what must have been a series of realisations and changes crossed my face. “No” she replied, “and it wasn’t a medical ward either!”

My mind went back to those visits…..

My parents had told me that my sister had had an accident involving a sash window and had cut both her arms, we were going to visit her in hospital and that the other patients had injuries as well so I had to behave. We walked into ,to my eight year old eyes, a vast room furnished with scattered tables and chairs. People were sitting, standing or shuffling around, almost all had bandages somewhere, some of the women had close cropped hair. There were people in uniform, staff and others in outdoor clothes, visitors. Most of the patients were in nightclothes or even hospital type gowns, some barefoot, others in slippers. I’m sure I remember one or two with fresh scars on their heads, this may be possible as lobotomies were still being carried out in the early sixties. I remember thinking that this was not a nice place, certainly different to the TB hospital where I had visited my dad.

My sister seemed pleased to see us and sat and played with me while chatting to Mum and Dad. One of the patients started screaming and was quicky removed from the room by about four staff, I was about to ask what was wrong with her, but was soon stopped by the look on my parent’s face. The visit seemed to be over very quickly and after our tearful goodbyes we drove home in silence. I only remember visiting once more, but my sister says I went three or four times, I have a very handy blocking memory, so she could be right.

With the knowledge I have now I realise that this was a very low level ward, most of the people there seemed to be recovering from suicide attempts, although it could be that those with injuries made more impression on my eight year old mind. When my sister and I talked about it those thirty five years later, she told me of her ECT and what seems now an excessive use of drugs; we laughed when she was telling me about occupational therapy as they had tried to get her basket weaving, she refused without giving a reason and was given an alternative. Our laughter and her refusal was because we had grown up surrounded by basket work our dad had produced whilst in the TB hospital and sanitarium, we were both thoroughly sick of anything basket like!

I knew nothing of mental health stigma or discrimination when I was eight, but without realising it had seen stigma at its worst. I was deceived by my parents because they didn’t want people to know what was really wrong with my sister, she was strongly encouraged to follow the party line and being quite fearful of dad did so. As we talked in the kitchen we realised how much help we could have been to each other in the intervening years had we not been shrouded in embarassment saving secrecy!


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