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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.

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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.

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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

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How often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?

Wellcome Collection explores what it means to be human through medicine, art and science. So when our Web Editor, Russell Dornan, saw someone doing the same in the form of a photography piece last year, he wanted to translate that in some way online. After meeting with the artist, Yuxin Jiang, they collaborated on this blog post in attempt to do just that.

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In September 2015 I went along to the University of Westminster’s degree show of its MA in Photographic Studies course to see my friend’s work featured in it. The exhibition, The Pensive Image, was hosted in the Ambika P3 gallery in London and included students from all over the world. One of the pieces that really grabbed my attention was the work by Yuxin: I found it compelling and layered; immediately visually interesting, but something that took a few minutes of exploring to begin to understand.

I saw the strong affinity Yuxin’s work had with Wellcome Collection and wondered if there was some way to explore it online. After making contact and meeting up, we discussed how to showcase the piece in a blog post. A blog post, of course, is a linear medium without the ability to show nuanced relationships between individual images. The challenge was for me to present it in a way that ensured Yuxin still felt confident about the message and the integrity of her work, while respecting the differences between an online experience and a physical one. Continue reading