Supper with friends (Nov/Dec 09)

Friday, 01 April 2011 18:04

Dorothy Rowe on the Stuart Low Trust

In August I gave a talk at one of the suppers at the Stuart Low Trust in Islington. This was the second time I had been there, and both occasions I enjoyed my visit enormously. Apart from the fact that everyone there was warm and friendly, my pleasure comes from seeing there how much ideas and practices have changed since I first arrived in Englandin 1968.

I had been working in Sydney as a liaison psychologist between the children's unit at the new psychiatric hospital at North Ryde and the schools. In Australia at that time many of the psychiatrists were interested in psychotherapy, and were concerned about understanding their individual patients rather than finding a diagnosis for each of them. Alas, now biological psychiatry is all the rage there, and ECT is regarded by many psychiatrists as the treatment of choice. Always remember, progress has to be guarded carefully because it can easily disappear. However, expecting that British psychiatrists would be like the psychiatrists I had been working with, I arrived in London and applied for a job as a clinical psychologist at Whiteley Woods Clinic in Sheffield. I got the job, principally because I was the only psychologist who had applied and they needed to fill the post. This clinic was part of the Department of Psychiatry at Sheffield University, and so I was at the cutting edge of British psychiatry. It was all diagnosis, drugs and ECT.

That was shock enough, but worse was to come when I was asked to see a patient who was in Middlewood Psychiatric Hospital. I could not believe my eyes. How could people who regarded themselves as being well educated, humane and caring put fellow human beings who were suffering great mental pain in such a disgusting, demeaning place! I came to know such places well, and the people in them, both the patients and the staff.

I learned to recognise all the stigmata that develop from time spent on a psychiatric ward. These were not the stigmata of madness - there aren't any - but the stigmata derive from the drugs patients were forced to consume, and from the effects of being treated as if you are something less than a human being, something of very little value. These stigmata can be seen in the way people move and in the way they relate to other people. Some people managed to throw the stigmata off soon after they left the psychiatric hospital, but others found that they had been marked for a very long time. As I sat talking to the delightful young man who was to introduce me when it was time for me to talk, I was watching the members of the trust enjoying the supper they had provided and prepared for themselves. It was clear to me which of them had spent years in a psychiatric hospital and which of them had escaped relatively unscathed. However, there was a huge difference between patients that I had once had known and the people I was with.

When you are a patient on a ward it is hard to make friends, either because the cotton wool in your brain put there by your drugs precludes any meaningful interaction, or because no one is on the ward long enough to get to know them. On acute wards patients could come and go very quickly. They might be discharged or moved to another ward. You learn to withdraw into yourself in order to look after yourself. The Stuart Low people had cast all that off. They talked to one another as old friends, and showed one another little acts of kindness, just as they did to me. Some of the people who talked to me revealed that shakiness we all feel when our self-confidence is easily punctured, but they were there taking part, and not hiding away in their room.

How had Virginia Low, who started the trust in memory of her son Stuart, achieved this? Simply by providing a structure where lonely, anxious people who had been through a terrible time could meet, do ordinary but pleasant things, and get to know one another. There are many groups that operate in much the same way as the Stuart Low Trust, groups that see no need of a PR person or a celebrity to proclaim how wonderful they are, or a charity ball to raise funds.

At supper I saw a number of people pile their plates with food and eat hungrily. I was concerned that they were not managing to look after themselves properly. Then it dawned on me that probably they were just like me. They lived on their own as I did and enjoyed it when somebody else cooked them a meal.

Published in openmind 160
November/December 2009