The Week in Radio: World Service's The Truth About Mental Health, showed there are many ways to heal the human mind


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The Independent Culture

"It was a very small room, 10 by 15 feet, without light, without a door," said the mayor of Bangalore, recalling the moment last October when he watched a man with schizophrenia being rescued from 10 years of solitary confinement in his family home outside the Indian city. "(There was) one very small window, it was kept only to feed him," the mayor continued. "You wouldn't even call it a room as there was no exit. There was no way for him to get out. It was not a room that was locked, there was a wall all around him."

On the World Service's new series, The Truth About Mental Health, we learned what can happen when state-funded psychiatric care isn't available to all. We discovered how, in certain parts of the world, those with mental illness are silenced, hidden away, imprisoned.

But Claudia Hammond's programme, the first of six episodes, wasn't merely about horror stories taking place thousands of miles away. It was about the best ways to heal the human mind, while looking at the varying social, cultural and religious influences that lead to different approaches to treatment.

In the developing world half of those who have psychosis receive no professional help, and instead are chained or locked up. Which, of course, sounds barbaric to Westerners accustomed to the ministrations of drug-wielding psychiatrists. But, asked Hammond, who is to say what is the correct treatment? And who decides what's normal and what isn't?

This was an immense, complex and sensitive subject that Hammond handled with pragmatism and care. Listening to the testimony of doctors, carers and those with often severe psychiatric problems proved both harrowing and enlightening. The discussions touched upon terminology (in India there is no comparable word for depression), the stigma of mental illness and the tension between different cultures and the Western medical model.

We also heard from Angela, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Pentecostal pastor father from Grenada, who has bipolar affective disorder and believes her manic phases are "a gift from God", and the result not of delusion but of her "entering into a spiritual dimension". It was a belief that her carers took seriously. Angela talked calmly and rationally about these episodes that she conceded required assistance from other people and drugs to help keep her safe. She likened her condition to being given a pair of roller skates as a six-year old and like a six-year-old on wheels, she said, "I need supervision."

The parents of Keshava, the schizophrenic man from Bangalore, had spent years struggling with his violent outbursts, his compulsive stripping off, his ceaseless shouting. A decade earlier he had seen some local psychiatrists who gave him medicine and sent him home. The strain of their son's behaviour took its toll as the family was increasingly treated as outcasts by the rest of the village. So, in desperation, they built a wall around him. Their story underlined the fear that can accompany mental illness, just one of the attitudes that Hammond's series seeks to address.

Radio 4's You and Yours reported on a mental-health development closer to home, the practice of prescribing books for those with mild to moderate psychiatric problems. Patients seeking help from GPs or psychiatrists, we discovered, are increasingly dispatched to the local library with a reading list.

This idea was not, as one might suspect, the masterplan of a phalanx of dodgy self-help gurus but of qualified clinical psychiatrists. As a representative from the charitable organisation The Reading Agency pointed out: "[The library is] a community space, it's not stigmatised. nobody knows why you're there. But at the same time coming to the library can be the first step on the road to recovery."