Is the Solution to Mental Illness No Solution?

It’s a question that has bedeviled us for centuries — how do you treat the mentally ill?   We know what doesn’t work; did you ever wonder about the origin of the word bedlam (  But perhaps what works best has been under our noses all along.

This story begins with a young lady who grew up with a family member afflicted by mental illness.  Naturally, she wanted to help and went to college to study psychology in the early 1970s.  She went so far as to fake mental illness so she would be institutionalized and could see the system from the patient’s viewpoint.  And she was appalled.  Basically, patients were watching TV all day.

There must be a better way.  Eventually, in her further research, she came upon the unique town of  Geel, Belgium ( ).  The unique part is ordinary townspeople welcome the mentally ill into their homes.  It’s a tradition that began hundreds of years ago thanks to Saint Dymphna, patron of the mentally ill, and they still do it because, well, that’s what they do.  By the 1930s, about a quarter of this town was mentally ill.  So this student went to see for herself.

There is a formal part of the program.  New patients are screened and assigned a therapist, then matched with a family.  But the family is told nothing about a diagnosis, and their “guests” live with them as long as necessary.  Yes, there are problems.  One man twists the buttons off his shirt every day.  Another hallucinates lions jumping through the walls to devour him.  How do you treat people like that?

But here comes the breakthrough — the families accept the patients and their behaviors.  If buttons get pulled off the shirt, they’re sewn back on that night.  They’ll get pulled off the next day, but that’s what your guest does, so you accept it by sewing them back on again.  If lions come through the walls, you chase them away.  Every time.  So the solution for the host families is to not seek a solution.  By the way, strangers are better at this than family members.

Would such a system work in this country?    Some have tried without success.   Our heroine thought she would try, too, but got “sucker-punched by reality.”  However, over the past thirty years she has persevered enough to establish seven apartment buildings, and about forty percent of the tenants are mentally ill.

So where do we go from here?  It’s a interesting question; this approach goes against so many accepted beliefs and even the Geel situation may finally be dying out.  But it’s fascinating to think about.

Material for this piece came from the NPR show “Invisibilia”.  The program was entitled “The Problem with the Solution” and it was broadcast on July 1, 2016.  Both the podcast and transcript are at .  The picture came from the website.

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