Friday, June 14, 2024

On being a member of the Four Tops in an insane place

There was a headline on Sky News the other day:

Four Tops star says hospital put him in straitjacket and ordered psychological examination after not believing he was famous singer

I thought it too serious for my Headline of the Day Award, though 'funny' headlines often stop being funny if you think about them for more than a moment.

But this story did make me think of several things.

The first was a description of Shelton Hospital, Shrewsbury, in the 1960s:
The hospital consumed 865 pints of milk per day. The grounds were infested with feral cats, which were a source of ringworm. There was a single post box, by the front door, for patients, staff and the hospital itself, which was often full to overflowing, meaning that letters often went missing. Nurses smoked constantly, in part to block out Shelton all-pervading smell: of a house locked up for years, in which stray animals had occasionally come to piss. The kitchen had a butcher with an attitude problem and the laundry sometimes went wrong, meaning that patients were forced to wear socks shrunk to half their normal size.
That comes from Sam Knight's book The Premonitions Bureau, which I still heartily recommend, and I first quoted it in a column I wrote for the the Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Yes, mental hospitals are strange and intimidating places, particularly the old county asylums like Shelton. 

I once went to meet a psychologist at Queen's Park Hospital, Blackburn, in the course of my old day job. The signage for the clinical psychology department ran out before I got there, so I had to ask someone the way. 

I had visions of the conversation going: "I'm from the British Psychological Society." "Of course you are, dear. Come with me." (When I told this story back at the office, my colleagues kindly said they would have denied all knowledge of me if the hospital had rung them up.)

So how do you show you are sane in such a strange place? Alexander Morris, who is the lead singer of the current incarnation of the Four Tops, struggled to do it and I think I would have too.

But don't just take our word for it. Here is the beginning of the abstract of a famous paper on the subject - the second thing the headline made me think of:
It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals. The hospital itself imposes a special environment in which the meanings of behavior can easily be misunderstood. The consequences to patients hospitalized in such an environment - the powerlessness, depersonalization, segregation, mortification, and self-labeling - seem undoubtedly countertherapeutic.
That paper is On Being Sane in Insane Places by David l. Rosenhan, which was published in Science in 1973.

The paper itself is behind a paywall, but you can read a more lay account of the experiment it describes by Rosenham on The Wayback Machine. And that experiment has its own Wikipedia entry - Rosenhan experiment:
In the first part, psychiatrically sane people said they heard hallucinations, to get admitted to a psychiatric ward. This was done to test how the psychiatric hospitals would react. The second part was the reverse. Rosenhan told the hospitals, he would send fake patients. But he did not send any fake patients.

The results of the study were very controversial. When Rosenhan sent the people, the hospitals were unable to detect them. On the other hand, when he told them he had sent some patients, but really did not, the hospitals recognised a large number of fake patients. The study said that it was impossible to tell a difference between the sane and the insane.
And the third thing the headline made me think of was a story about a therapeutic poetry study group in a hospital on the Isle of Wight where an elderly patient rightly declared that, years before, he had written one of the poems they were studying.

I found it in a piece by a hero of this blog, Iain Sinclair:
[David] Gascoyne's rescue, his return to life in the suburban house on the Isle of Wight, was brokered by two remarkable people. Judy Lewis, a vet's estranged wife, who read his "September Sun: 1947" to a depressed group at Whitecroft Hospital, provoked the previously mute writer to speech. "I am the poet." "Yes, dear. I'm sure you are." But it was true. He was the poet and it was always 1947. He became a living quotation recovered from a midden of fragments: "All our trash to cinders bring." There was to be a notable late flowering for the willowy and disconsolate figure in the bow tie, the time traveller from the 30s. Gascoyne married Judy. He had found his loving companion and chauffeur.
You can read more about David Gascoyne in his Wikipedia entry.

As I said, Alexander Morris is the current lead singer with the Four Tops, but I've gone back to the band's glory years for my choice of video above.

I'm not sure his predecessor would have faired any better though:
"We've got a patient here who says he's Levi Stubbs." 
"Sure, and I'm Sam Cooke."

1 comment:

nigel hunter said...

As an ex carer in one of these institutions (for 18 months) I found it fascinating talking to them. The stories they told then checking it up with their historical notes re there lives, as known. It was one small way of checking up on whether they were 'normal'or not. Telling stories or in 'medical' terminology of the time Confabulation.