The Last Asylum

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In a culture where mental illness still carries much stigma Barbara Taylor’s memoir is an important book about pain and treatment.

Taylor, a biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, describes her agonising journey of mental collapse. In the 1980s she began psychoanalysis in order to seek help for her anxiety, depression, insomnia and drinking.

She was admitted to Friern mental asylum — the largest asylum in Europe which closed its doors in 1993, a year after Taylor was discharged.

Her story of life in Friern’s Ward 16 is interspersed with a fascinating short historical account of Britain’s asylums since the 1600s, the development of psychiatry and psychoanalysis as well as heart-wrenching conversations with her therapist.

She discusses both the abuses she witnessed in the asylum, and the haven it provided. In Friern she met many people who had been “asylum dwellers” for decades. She saw how “poverty is a psychological catastrophe”.

Taylor illustrates how mental health is profoundly affected by class and economic status as well as how today’s derisory services fail to support severely vulnerable people.

She highlights that “decades of intensive research…have thus far produced no persuasive evidence for the neurobiological origin of any mental illness”.

Her concluding chapter however needed more discussion of the research carried out by the critics of mainstream psychiatry’s view of mental illness as a brain disorder and the biomedical model in general.

Such critics are becoming louder in the face of scientific research which shows that anti-depressants are no better than a placebo. Taylor points out that the UK and the US massively overprescribe anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. She cites numerous studies illustrating over-drugging and Big Pharma’s hold over psychiatry.

She writes that “today people with ongoing mental health problems have few dedicated social venues. The day hospitals and the day centres have mostly closed, usually in the face of anguished protest.”

Mental health service managers argue that users are encouraged not to become “career mental patients” mixing only with others who are unwell.

Whilst there is some truth in this, it is a justification for the cuts which leave patients isolated. Although it is policy to give people access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which research shows is helpful, the waiting lists are long and the treatment short.

This is a personal and a collective story of the struggle of mental anguish and how psychiatry and treatment is linked with profit and poverty as people are being “drugged on an industrial scale” instead of being offered decent care and support.