Could mental health tech mean the return of the old asylums?
The old Victorian asylums seem way in the past. We’ve come a long way. And yet…
I’m bipolar, I’ve been working in mental health for twenty years, in film, in writing, in campaigning, telling my story and helping other people do the same. If anything bothers me it is that no one should have to experience mental health services like I did in the 90’s, at the tail end of the asylum system.
Yes, I stayed in those places, and I also filmed in them. A day I will never forget was filming in Claybury Hospital, an abandoned asylum in East London, to tell the story of the building and the residents. It was icy cold, miles of corridors, pigeon guano everywhere…
…and on the floor of a room that had been rifled to sell the filing cabinets that had been in it were the contents of those cabinets, people’s medical records strewn about. I picked up a handful at random. There I was holding the story of a woman who had become pregnant in the 1930’s, and spent the rest of her life in the asylum. Someone else’s interpretation of her story. A fragment of a life.
Yes, it was dark. Too dark.
So I turned my perspective to see what the future of mental health might hold. Over the last four years I’ve been a mental health tech entrepreneur.
My background in film meant that I was well placed to develop an app to help people manage their mental health and tell their own stories in video diaries. But, at the start of this year, I gave it up.
Because I came to believe that without relationships at the heart of mental health service delivery, it is just patients handing over data. I had lots of data, people found the platform useful. They found it most useful when they had met me or the team personally. To make real change, relationships had to be at the heart of it. Equal relationships.
Without that we are in danger of reinventing the asylum system. The Victorians took the small scale retreats that the Quakers started and thought they could make them work at scale. You end up with a big house on a hill, and stories of patients who are treated like objects. The shadow of the asylum system and its data banks of objectified people should stand as a warning for doing anything at scale in mental health.
It takes me back to the woman and her story that I held in my hands back in that day in the asylum.
It makes me think, how can we do digital mental health humanely, do it well?
Positive mental health tech
It’s not about a grand solution, it’s about small scale localised interventions which leave the power with the individual. It’s about creating a mental health environment in which people can be partners, working together, equally.
The assumption of scale in the asylum system led to unequal distribution of power, that was its downfall. It was abuse of that power that led to me holding that woman’s story in my hands. Not only in the treatment of her, but in the careless way that her story — her data — was treated.
Since then, everything I’ve done in mental health is about story and equality. Noone can tell someone else’s story. That is for them alone.
If you’re telling your mental health story, I salute you.
Tell your story. Tell it to yourself, tell it in journals, write a memoir, find a way to reconnect with your own version of events.
To be the author and in control of your own story is the most powerful way that you can recover from a mental health diagnosis… and find your own way out of the asylum system.