“We need a Union!”

Laurie Penny speaks to veteran campaigner Andrew Roberts about the many changes he has seen in the way people with mental health difficulties are treated in Britain

Andrew Roberts, 65, has had depression since childhood. In the 1970s he was a founding member of the Mental Patients’ Union, and he now runs The Survivor History Group, bringing together stories of the fight for patients’ rights over the past half-century.

“What happens in psychiatric units today is dramatically different from what happened in the old asylums. In 1957, when I was thirteen, I was referred to a local mental hospital in Essex to have a machine called an encephalogram used on me – things shaped like hair curlers were attached to my head to measure my brainwaves. It worried me because there was a lady doing it, and I was wondering if she was reading my thoughts!

“The range of treatments depended on the hospital and the ward. In some areas of the country you couldn’t get much apart from electro-convulsive therapy. Some hospitals, like Belmont asylum, specialised in brain surgery. The idea was that if you cut or damaged the fibres of the frontal lobes of the brain, it was supposed to result in the patient getting better.”

Roberts received excellent care at the Ingrebourne neurosis centre in the 1960s, but his future wife, Valerie, was less fortunate. “When she was fourteen, Valerie was found wandering in a zombie-like state on a beach, and she was taken to Essex Hall, a hospital for people with learning difficulties – although the term then was ‘mental defective’. She was put in the ward for ‘the vegetables’. That was what she was called by doctors, in her hearing, a ‘vegetable’. She wasn’t spoken to except by slaps.

“Valerie became withdrawn, and was unable to communicate except with her hands – a result of the treatment as much as anything else. She was given electro-convulsive therapy and the doctors wanted her to have brain surgery. Fortunately, a doctor got her transferred to Ingrebourne, where she began to improve. I met her there, and we married two years later in 1965, when I was 21 and she was almost seventeen.” Roberts and Valerie started a family, and remained married until her death in 1994.

Enter the Mental Patients Union

In 1973, as students, the couple got involved in mental health activism. “A hundred mental patients attended a meeting in London, and we decided to set up a Mental Patients’ Union. Our aim was to represent all mental patients wherever they needed to be represented – we wanted patients to be able to support one another and bargain collectively.”

Roberts explained that the idea of mental patients supporting one another had been growing for some time. “In the 1950s, Tommy Richie was a detained patient in a Scottish asylum. He volunteered to be a shaver for the old men in the hospital, which meant he had access to the locked wards, so he was going around shaving the men and talking to everyone. One day, an elderly patient called Archie Meek, who had been a trade union organiser, said ‘we need a union, Tommy, you ought to set one up.’ So Tommy used his position as a shaver to collect stories from all the patients and they put them together and wrote a collective grievance, even though they were in locked wards and never able to meet. Tommy sent it to the hospital authorities, and slowly, things began to change. Tommy told me that he spent ‘years putting in my individual grievances and nobody did anything. When we started doing things together, then we started to be heard’.”

Changing treatment

One of the first demands of the Mental Patients’ Union was for the abolition of compulsory treatment. “We wanted to work towards treatment being made voluntary. In those days, if you were detained in hospital any treatment that was available might be given to you without your consent. Compulsory treatment wasn’t defined legally in the way that it is now – the controls over treatment came in with the 1983 Mental Health Act, partly as a result of the Mental Patients’ Union. In practice many treatments were compulsory even for voluntary patients. Some treatments like ECT required a consent form, so the nurse would come over to a heavily sedated person in bed, and take their hand and guide it to sign the consent form. If you see that happening in front of you, you think twice before refusing to take a tablet when you’re given it.”

Roberts believes that life has improved for people with mental health difficulties in Britain. “The biggest change for the better in the last 40 years has been the change in the culture. In the 1940s, the culture was still dominated by eugenic thinking – the idea that anything to do with disability was shameful. It wasn’t just a problem for people to admit that they were a mental patient – it was even hard for people to admit that they might be related to a mental patient!”

Roberts has seen many changes in the treatment of people with mental health difficulties and feels that change is an uneven process: “I don’t think people with severe mental health difficulties have enough support at the moment – but then, I don’t think they ever did have enough support, not even in the asylums.”

“Each time something changes in mental health treatment some people suffer, and certainly there are people today who might have been better off in one of the old asylums.

“In general, though, whatever the problems are with their present situations, people are happier now.”

The Survivors History Group is working towards a comprehensive history of the contribution people with mental heath difficulties have made to history. See www.studymore.org.uk/mpu.htm

This feature appears in the Winter 2009 edition of One in Four magazine

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