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For many people diagnosed with schizophrenia, coping with the often-unpredictable course of the disease is a lifelong struggle. Though Mary Barnes was no exception, her amazing story would become an inspiration for countless psychiatric patients around the world.
Born in Portsmouth, England in 1923, Mary described her childhood living with her "abnormally nice" parents as normal enough though she never felt much love or affection at home. After training as a nurse, she served one year working in army hospitals in Egypt and Palestine before returning home when World War II ended.
While she was able to work as a nurse in several London hospitals, she became increasingly disturbed. In 1952, Mary had her first psychiatric episode which led to a year of hospitalization in a Southall hospital. This was a horrifying experience for her and the memory haunted her for year afterwards. The sight of "whole rows of terribly crowded beds, doors always locked" made her want to "withdraw, to lie in a corner on the floor." Though she was diagnosed as schizophrenic, she managed to convince her doctors to release her by being as cooperative as possible. After her discharge, she returned to work as a nursing tutor.
The stigma of being a psychiatric patient followed her however. Her plan to continue her nursing training at the National Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was blocked by the United States embassy in London which had refused to grant her a visa. Apparently her history of psychiatric hospitalization made them reluctant to allow her into the country.
In spite of this setback, Mary continued with nursing and began working with mentally handicapped children. She was also desperate to stay out of psychiatric hospitals at any cost given her own experience there. Her research into better methods of dealing with mental illness led to her becoming interested in the theories of psychoanalyst, James Robertson. At the time, Robertson was working with the eminent child psychiatrist, John Bowlby, at the Tavistock Clinic in London and had been conducting research on psychological problems of hospitalized children. He and his wife Joyce also made a series of films showing the impact of separation anxiety on children when they are in a hospital. One of these films, A Two-year-old Goes To Hospital, is considered a classic and has been preserved in the U.K.'s National Archives. Robertson's research has inspired hospitals around the world to offer specialized wards for child patients where their parents can stay with them and reduce the anxiety they feel.
Through her own work with children in need, Mary Barnes developed a good working relationship with James Robertson and also confided in him about her own need for treatment. But she had an even more compelling reason to seek professional help. Her younger brother, James, also began showing signs of schizophrenia and she was desperate for a treatment option that could help them both.
She found that option in 1963 when she read R. D. Laing's book, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist who was working at the Tavistock Clinic at the time, developed a radical view on mental illness that was completely at odds with his mainstream colleagues. Instead of regarding mental illness as something that needed to be eliminated, he suggested that people in mental and emotional distress should be allowed to explore their symptoms. In this way, mental illness could be made into a transforming experience, much like the vision quests of shamans.
Inspired by Laing's book, Mary Barnes asked James Robertson for his help in contacting him. By this time, her symptoms had had worsened to the point of no longer being able to work and she was also desperate to help her brother as well. She soon became a regular patient of Laing while staying at a London hostel and, when Laing's Kingsley Hall project began in 1965, Mary Barnes was one of the first patients.
Kingsley Hall is a community centre in London's East End. Long known for its colourful history (Mahatma Gandhi stayed there in 1931 and the building now houses the Gandhi Foundation), it was there that R.D. Laing and his associates decided to create an "experiment in anti-psychiatry." Laing, who publicly declared insanity to be a "perfectly rational response to an insane world," intended to use Kingsley Hall to demonstrate that people with schizophrenia could be successfully treated without the need for medication, forced restraints, or any of the other abusive practices that were common in mental hospitals of the time. It took more than a year to make the centre ready and only fourteen patients could be accommodated at a time.
Having already formed the Philadelphia Foundation for understanding and treatment of mental suffering, Laing and his associates at Kingsley Hall experimented with a wide range of radical treatments, including "regression therapy" to demonstrate that non-drug and non-restraint treatment could help schizophrenics learn to function in society. Since it was meant to be a "no-holds barred" approach to allowing psychiatric patients to work through their psychosis without restraints, the Kingsley Hall project was regarded with extreme hostility by the local residents. This would lead to harassment that would continue for the entire lifetime of the project.
Though Mary Barnes succeeded in having her brother, Peter, admitted as a patient as well, he experienced problems from the very beginning. After only a few weeks, he dropped out and sought treatment elsewhere (he eventually died in the 1980s). As for Mary, she would stay at the centre for five years and eventually became one of the most well-known patients at Kingsley Hall. Her story would transform her into a powerful activist for mental health reform long after the Kingsley Hall project ended.
To be Continued
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