Inspired: chemical cure, chemical cosh

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ has recently closed. Our exhibition tracing the rise and fall of the asylum contained an array of inspirational objects: JJ Beegan’s toilet roll sketches from the Adamson Collection; a Hogarth engraving; original scrolls of mental health related acts of law; and a number of references to the unique family care system in Geel, Belgium.


Thorazine advert as shown in ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’.

However, I was drawn to this 1950s advert of a patient both before (montone photo of cuffed man on the left) and after medication (colour image, peacefully at home on the right). I’m intrigued by the claims and somewhat disturbed by the imagery; I want to find out more.

Chemicals have been used in the relief of mental illness since the early post-medieval period. The 1950s, though, was the breakthrough decade for psychiatric drugs, in particular chlorpromazine which was followed by a whole suite of pharmaceutical treatments, such as lithium, thioridazine and paraldehyde. Many of these drugs had been developed for other medical uses, but were found to have a powerful sedative effect. Subsequently, use in asylums and mental hospitals became widespread.

Prolonged use became common and many patients were required to have daily medication. This was usually in syrup form, but also by injection (especially when an immediate sedation effect, or ‘cosh’, was required). Systematically treating people with behaviour-altering drugs also affected their personalities to the point of malleable compliance. While patients were no longer physically shackled or cuffed, they were restrained nonetheless, albeit chemically.

Advertisements for anti-psychotic drugs also failed to mention side effects. Patients under a chemical cosh could develop a sluggish drag when they walked, or near-constant dribbling from the mouth. Others suffered from locked joints or blurred vision. Hypersensitivity to sunlight was another by-product of continual and repetitive use, so much so that some users found it rather problematic to go outside.

It would be wrong to suggest that the use of such medication is wholly negative. Doctors and patients report successful relief from some of the pain associated with mental illness. Drugs can help prevent physical harm to sufferers and carers, and sleep is now a distinct reality for many who had previously struggled with it. Perhaps the most powerful argument is that many people can be free from institutionalisation; medication makes living at home a possibility.

So, should these drugs be consigned to history along with other so-called modern innovations, such as insulin comas, ice baths, electroshock treatment and lobotomies? Or should they be hailed as a liberator? Chemical cure or just chemical cosh?

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant.


A drop in the ocean: Daniel Regan

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Daniel Regan, a photographer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition late last year.

I began feeling that something wasn’t quite right in my early teens. Looking back on it now I remember thinking that my thoughts seemed jumbled, tangled and different from my peers. My emotional experiences were felt so deeply; my responses were not the same as those around me at that age. As I got further into my teens, I withdrew into myself and began to self-harm. I could never quite figure out how to make sense of the chaos in my mind, but then I discovered photography, which helped me begin to express the brief moments of clarity. Continue reading


How cultural contexts can shape mental illness

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ is now in its final weeks, closing on 15 January. The exhibition traces the rise and fall of the mental asylum and how it has shaped the complex landscape of mental health today. For this post we adjust our focus as Sarah Jellenc takes a more global view of mental health. 

As a student of literature, I’ve spent a lot of time studying cultural narratives – the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our reality. Browsing through the Hearing Voices Café newspapers at Wellcome Collection’s ‘Bedlam’ exhibition the other day got me thinking: what bearing might cultural narratives surrounding mental illness have on an individual’s expression and experience of psychopathology? Continue reading


A drop in the ocean: Sarah Carpenter

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Sarah Carpenter, an artist who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition earlier this year.


‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

Having suffered for many years with depression, anxiety and eating disorders, I have found refuge in my art and cannot begin to explain how much it means to me to be able to produce my work.

Having spent a long time with so many things on my mind, my recovery has cleared space in my mind and life for more creativity. I now use art to proactively utilise my energy and in turn keep up the momentum of my recovery. It allows “me time” to do something that I enjoy and am passionate about as a way of self-soothing.

Through therapy from my eating disorder I began to realise how little I recognised and dealt with my emotions. My artwork has allowed me to really engage instead. On a very basic level, producing my work gives me a positive outlet for my frustrations, emotions and problems. I’m able to escape as I “switch off” and focus on the process of making the work. This process allows time to pass and emotions to calm, meaning I can deal with things from a much calmer place.

A strong aspect of my problem is an innate need to challenge myself and do better. Making my work helps me realise the interpretive nature of art and keeping this in sight allows me to be more positive and reward myself again. My illness can make me feel the need to gain control. Producing my work allows me to channel this in a much more constructive and positive manner.

I feel lucky to be able to communicate through my work. In my experience, the arts are a great facilitator for opening up lines of communication.

'Wallpaper' from my 'Emerging' series.

‘Wallpaper’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

In the past, my artwork has not only facilitated non-verbal communication, it has given me the confidence to talk about my mental health. This all helped towards reducing stigma surrounding eating disorders which made asking for help initially so difficult for me.

I hope that through making my artwork, people who have similar experiences may take comfort in this kind of sharing, that it may help the battle to break down stigmas.

The work

Process to me is just as important as the final outcome. My piece, The Small Things (below), lets an audience in on my deeply personal daily practice of finding sanctuary through repetition.

I work predominantly as a graphic designer and digital photographer, therefore I wanted to share how a return to materials and hand craft can be used as a way to unwind and disconnect from our otherwise predominantly digital life. There is something very comforting about a return to traditional and simple roots. Using textile and fabric is a very satisfying practice for me as it adds another layer in the form of a multi-sensory and tactile experience.

The mark making itself is a process that creates rhythm and movement, which is a comfort to me as my background is in dance. This repetition can also lead me into a more mindful state.

Sanctuary & asylum

I recognise sanctuary and asylum as states of mind, emotions and feelings, as opposed to a physical place. It is an attitude and it is a lifestyle. We can find it within ourselves, but only if given the space, time and tools to do so.


From my ‘Antique Postcard’ series.

There is a lot of focus on the type of spaces that should be provided in order for people to find sanctuary and asylum, but I feel that the most important facilitation starts with society’s attitude towards the ideas of “asylum” and “sanctuary”. These words have negative connotations and, as a society, we actually seem to frown upon the notion of asylum. People who seek help and support are seen as weak; not resilient or strong.

Some of the strongest people that I have met have been the ones who fight internal battles, become in touch with their own emotions and try to become better people by reconnecting and challenging their own thoughts; the people who seek sanctuary.


‘Global Connectivity’, mixed media.

Allowing yourself the time and space, finding sanctuary and changing your thoughts and behaviours is not easy. As a society, we need to facilitate this, rethink the lifestyles that we have created where we ignore our own needs, show no self-compassion, do not give importance to taking time for ourselves and finding sanctuary and where actively seeking asylum is so very difficult to do.

Sarah is an artist, photographer and designer with a strong interest in combining traditional craft with digital practices. Follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


A drop in the ocean: Artist Taxi Driver

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from the Artist Taxi Driver, an artist and social protestor who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition.

The Artist Taxi Driver is the persona of artist and prominent political and social protestor Mark McGowan, whose YouTube channel “chunkymark” has attracted over 50,000 subscribers. In his videos, McGowan films himself and occasional invited interviewees in his taxi discussing political and social issues. Past interviewees have included Frankie Boyle, John McDonnell, Mhairi Black, Noam Chomsky, Caroline Lucas, Charlotte Church, David Graeber and Russell Brand. Continue reading


A drop in the ocean: In the old asylums

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from David Beales, an artist and writer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition. In his own words, David confronts the issue of prejudice against the mentally ill by using informative illustration and captions to raise awareness of the problems confronting the mentally ill in the community.


Industrial Therapy

Industrial Therapy | Patients could make a few extra pounds a week by working in the industrial therapy department. Some preferred this to sitting idly on the ward.

Though there were overcrowded dormitories in the old asylums and patients were caught in a poverty trap, usually inmates for life, it was not all grim. The food may have been overcooked, but it was at least regular and on time. In one hospital I remember (and they tended to be similar) there were films in the hall on Wednesday afternoons: pre-war black and white films, ghostly projections on a large, old roll down screen, with the dated dialogue and classical music soundtrack adding to the eerie effect.

A percussion band performed on the hall stage on Thursdays. A woman played what sounded a bit like slowed down stride music, a melodic improvisation on an upright piano, while the members of the band played triangle, clappers and tambourines. Patients from the locked geriatric and senile dementia wards, some ambulant, a few in wheelchairs, were led or pushed by nurses to the hall to sit on tubular steel and Formica chairs in the hall and spend some time away from the ward.

There was a games night when the tables and chairs were brought out in the main hall so that patients could play draughts, chess, snakes and ladders, or dominoes. In another hospital there was bingo night where patients could win a loose cigarette or a bar of chocolate for a line; a bag of five loose cigarettes for a house.

The hospitals interacted too. There were evening skittles matches against teams from other hospitals and in the summer there were cricket matches or a summer fete on the cricket pitch; at one time there were prizes for painting, drawing, cakes, jam and tapestry. There were yearly trips to the seaside. Coaches were hired and patients were each given 50p spending money by a member of staff who doled out the coins from a bag as he walked up and down the aisle of the coach.

Guy Ward

Guy Ward | There was little privacy in the dormitory, often there were no curtains around the beds.

There was camaraderie in the Guy ward dormitory, where the introductory conversations, and paranoid inquisitions that accompanied Terry Burns’ referral to that ward, subsided and metamorphosed into impromptu group therapy sessions. These were mainly for Terry’s benefit as he confronted his anxieties. The few of us who could hold a conversation patiently let him talk; we were his audience and confidantes. His anger burnt out as he found some stability and was able to drink without becoming aggressive, and confront and conquer his prejudices to find some stability and contentment before drinking on medication brought despair again.

Though patients in the old asylums often lived in terrible conditions, they left the psychiatric units with more beds and staff. The staff, when they could rely on the psychiatric hospitals to take chronically ill patients, consequently had more time to help patients suffering from anorexia, agoraphobia and post manic phase depression.

A patient who was admitted because they suffered from agoraphobia would be encouraged by a nurse to take a few steps outside the ward. When the patient had managed to take more steps down the drive leading to the ward, they were encouraged to walk to the phone box under a covered walkway a make a phone call. As they gained confidence they were encouraged to walk to the shops with the nurse so they could do some shopping. The rewards were also practical, preparing the patient for their return to the community.

I saw a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa kept in isolation, except for a nurse posted outside her side room door while she slowly reached a target weight. She was rewarded with a trip to the day room. When she reached the next target weight she was, like the agoraphobic patient, rewarded with a trip to the shops.


A Day Room | In 1980 patients recieved £7 a week. Pensioners were given just £2 pounds a week or in some cases nothing as it was thought that the hospital took care of their needs.

Patients suffering from bi-polar disorder could rest and recover after a manic episode on the wards. The elderly bereaved, often men who had relied on their wives and had to learn living skills, used to be able do this in occupational therapy departments. These treatments may still be available, but for fewer patients than in the past. There were day hospitals, day units and occupational therapy departments for day patients, inextricably closed along with the large hospitals.

Day patients seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, patients in the community are left unmonitored in the community, sometimes in squalor, sometimes even sleeping rough or ending up in prison.

Before the hospitals were closed, the psychiatric units could operate a walk-in open door policy on week days. Patients could see the day hospital nurse and if they thought you were ill you might see a duty doctor on the same day. Now there are more patients but fewer beds. Now there are waiting lists.

Patients now may have to wait months before they can see a psychiatrist, and then find that there are no day resources in the area, no beds free and little the doctor can do besides prescribe tablets and refer the patient to cognitive behavioural therapy. This may be a course of half a dozen one-hour sessions with a therapist; hardly enough time for in-depth psychoanalysis.

Film above made for the Bethlem Gallery: David speaks to Michaela Ross about his work.

It is easier to identify the problems than to solve them. The recent announcement that there will be no increase in the amount of money the government can give the NHS means that there will be no reinstatement of day resources for the mentally ill.

Some patients have for a while, years in fact, attended user led initiatives. Art workshops like Centrepieces at Hall Place in Bexleyheath and Cool Tan Arts in Southwark. Or the Dragon Café, where patients meet at the crypt of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street, also in Southwark. It was started by Sarah Wheeler, to whom the book that accompanies Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, Mike Jay’s Bedlam: This Way Madness Lies, is dedicated.

Pictures from another art workshop, the Italian La Tinaia collective formed in 1975 in a disused hospital farmhouse by healthcare professionals, can be seen in the exhibition and book. Hopefully these will inspire others to start similar projects. They do not have to be art focussed. Drop-ins would help and why not ask community centres and churches if they can help? After all, someone got permission to use the crypt of St George’s church in Southwark to use the premises.

Day resources can provide sanctuary, refuge, asylum and respite from a world that seems to increasingly care less about the plight of the care in the community patient as time marches on.

David writes about these and other subjects in his book The Road to the Asylum about the mental health service, bohemian South London in the seventies and the casualties of society who often ended up in the old asylums.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


A drop in the ocean: Suzanne Morris

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Suzanne Morris, a writer involved in Core Arts.

Hi, my name is Suzanne and I am someone who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, anxiety and other delightful things. I am in therapy at the moment pretending to be “normal”. I also go to Core Arts.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression back in the eighties after a break down. I did a stint at the Junction at Homerton Hospital when it was part of the old Hackney Hospital; afterwards I was put on a waiting list to have psychotherapy. There was a terrible lack of therapists and, sadly, you just had to wait your turn. This often meant you waited years! Continue reading