Focus on mental health: Discovering the person beneath the stigma

So much has changed, and yet the stigma of mental health still exists, columnist Lawrence Butterfield writes.

By Rebecca Elliott
Monday, 17th January 2022, 2:47 pm
Updated Monday, 17th January 2022, 2:48 pm
So much work is being done to remove the stigma of mental health.
So much work is being done to remove the stigma of mental health.

In 1979 as an 18-year-old naive young man I found myself starting work in Fairfield, an ageing Victorian mental hospital set in the rolling Hertfordshire countryside.

As I nervously walked down the endless corridors, surrounded by high windows and polished floors, I thought I had walked into the set of a Gothic horror film.

Suddenly, I found myself ‘cornered’ by a woman with grossly exaggerated mannerisms, ill-fitting clothing, and contorted facial features.

I was ‘asked’ for a cigarette and some money.

Having neither I apologised. The lady muttered incoherently and walked on. I breathed a sigh of relief.

In the dim light of the corridor, I was unnerved. What had I let myself in for?

As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, I got to know this lady well.

Mary had been incarcerated in the hospital as a teenager and had been a patient for over 50 years. Mary’s crime? Having an illegitimate child.

Mary’s punishment was to be locked away. Out of sight and out of mind.

Over many years Mary had been overmedicated by sedating drugs.

These caused her to shake and salivate excessively. In time she became institutionalised.

Gradually, Mary developed the symptoms of other patients who had schizophrenia.

Mary was one of many patients who found themselves in this position.

Over time the medications were modernised providing better efficacy and less side effects.

In the early 1990s many of the old Victorian ‘asylums’ were closed and patients were discharged into the community.

Better research, safer treatment programmes, and modern care facilities heralded a much-needed move away from the dark past.

We are unlikely to see people like Mary now. People are no longer hospitalised for having illegitimate children.

Many people with schizophrenia and other mental conditions are now nursed at home.

They no longer draw unwanted attention caused by medication side effects.

They will be treated holistically, acknowledged as unique individuals with specific needs.

Many will work and will live each day undefined by their condition.

So much has changed, and yet the stigma of mental health still exists.

So much work is being done to try to remove the stigma of mental health.

I reflect and recount my personal experiences to highlight the ‘then and now.’ It was another world. A world far removed from one anybody would now wish for, either for themselves or their loved ones. We cannot erase the past, but we can learn from it. Mary’s story is one of many.

In order to understand how far we have come and where we are going to, Mary’s story needs to be told.