Hospitals can sometimes be a problem rather than a solution. They cannot provide the collaborative information sharing needed to care for today’s typical patients who may have multiple problems. This is especially true for the elderly and the mentally ill. Royal College of Physicians has proposed the concept of “hospital without walls” which aims at providing continuity of care for patients, coordinated and delivered by a single consultant-led clinical team. The hospital ceases to be “somewhere”. It becomes everywhere.
The little market town of Geel in Belgium is well known for its early de-medicalisation of care of the mentally ill. For at least 7 centuries, it’s inhabitants have been taking the mentally ill or disabled into their homes as ‘guests’ or ‘boarders’. These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them. When they meet their new families there is no clinical diagnosis. During the Renaissance, Geel became famous as a place of sanctuary for the ‘mad’, who arrived and stayed for reasons both spiritual and opportunistic.
A boarder is treated as a member of the family, involved in everything and particularly encouraged to form a strong bond with the children, a relationship that is seen as beneficial to both parties. They call it ‘family care’, possibly the best form of therapy. Often the boarder lives with the family till they die, first as a child, then a sibling and later on as an uncle or aunt. Doesn’t that fulfil a basic human need of relatedness with other beings? The tradition still exists albeit to a limited extent due to faster paced city life, fewer farms and more double income families. However, the main reason for its longevity is not just tolerance, but pride. “Half of Geel is crazy, and the rest is half crazy,” runs a local joke.
Today, in London we aim to provide ‘Community Care’ in the absence of a community and no understanding of the word ‘care’. It’s obviously not working because the basic values on which it is based are wrong ie. cost saving.
We, the people need to educate ourselves, open our hearts and develop a deeper understanding of our human condition.
To kick off the Mental Health Awareness week, here are a couple of attempts on my part: