Asylum life to be featured in BBC documentary

A BBC documentary examining life in Victorian psychiatric asylums is to be broadcast on Monday.

The programme, Mental: A History of the Madhouse, focuses on the former High Royds hospital near Leeds, which had 2,500 patients.

High Royds is now to be converted into flats.

By the mid 1950s 150,000 people were being treated in 120 Victorian institutions.

It was in the eighties they began closing, as the policy of community care took over.

The documentary features testimony from former asylum staff and patients. It shows how asylum treatment, such as insulin-induced coma therapy, was sometimes extreme and experimental.

There were 15,000 pre-frontal leucotomies which a psychiatrist in the programme calls a “disaster”.

“Patients were walking around with holes in the side of their heads,” he said.

During the 1950s High Royds wrote itself into the medical history books when its doctors helped pioneer Lithium as a treatment for manic depression.

The programme trys to convey that asylums did provide a refuge for patients.

Tom Heller, senior lecturer at The Open University’s faculty of health and social care and one of the academics working on the programme, said: “Although asylums were a familiar sight on the outskirt of every major town, the general public seemed only too willing to shut their minds to what was going on behind the walls.

“But important lessons can still be learnt from the experiences of people associated with that phase in history – a phase of dealing with people who were rejected largely because they didn’t easily fit in to mainstream society.”

* Mental: A History of the Madhouse will be shown on BBC4 on Monday 17 May at 9pm as part of a themed mental health night.

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