A History of Britain’s Asylum System

This brilliantly made BBC documentary tells the story of the UK’s Victorian mental institutions from their inception, through the revolution in treatment and finally ending in their closure in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Patients and medical staff paint a picture of a system that failed in many ways, particularly with respect to experimental and over-used treatments including ECT, Insulin-induced coma and brain surgery.  That said, it seems clear from the film that the wholesale closure of psychiatric hospitals and a move to the euphemistically entitled ‘care in the community’ strategy has failed huge numbers of mentally ill patients; the lack of facilities which provide protection, assisted living, respite and close monitoring is a serious systemic failure that has yet to be addressed.

This BBC film is thought-provoking and poses as many questions as it answers.  How should the mentally ill be treated?  Does a community-based system work?  What is the role of hospitalization?  Is there a need for a place which quite literally provides ‘asylum’ from those debilitated by their particular conditions, whether short or long-term?

I personally have no wish to see a return to the old ‘lunatic asylum’ system, but there certainly does need to be more psychiatric in-patient facilities where patients can be monitored, and medication modulated if needs be, during the active phases of their conditions.  There are some things which just can’t be done properly and efficiently ‘in the community’.

Anyway, here’s the film:


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