Secrets From the Asylum Reveals Uninformed View of the Mentally Ill

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Secrets from the Asylum is a ‘very odd programme’ that reveals Britain’s lack of understanding of mental illness and related diseases. Did you know that early in Queen Elizabeth’s reign that a law was passed requiring an insane asylum in every county in Britain? The number of people thought to be mentally insane must have been enormous. Patients with dementia were even hauled away to the asylums, but dementia is a disease, not a mental illness. Secrets from the Asylum is interesting mainly because of the celebrities it’s putting forward to tell its tales.

Secrets From the Asylum

What do Ray Winstone, Claire Sweeney and Al Murray have in common? They all get in the way of some interesting stories about Victorian lunatic asylums

Secrets From the Asylum (ITV) is a very odd programme. It is clearly a cousin to Secrets From the Clink, which I haven’t seen, but if you have, you’ll get the idea. Secrets From the Clink was like Who Do You Think You Are? but with added incarceration. Secrets From the Asylum is like Secrets From the Clink, but with lunatic asylums.

A strange crop of celebrities has been harvested for this investigation: Ray Winstone, Claire Sweeney, Al Murray the Pub Landlord. Christopher Biggins and Lesley Joseph join next week. Their only unifying feature, apart from fame, is that they each have an ancestor who was once in a lunatic asylum. Did you know Murray was related to Thackeray, whose wife was in a lunatic asylum? I can’t say I didn’t learn anything.

Early in Queen Victoria’s reign, a new law decreed that every county must have its own asylum. They constituted a vast improvement on what went before, but mental illness was still poorly understood and carried a terrible stigma for patients and their families. The asylums were, by modern standards, cruel and ineffectual, little more than architecturally impressive dumping grounds. Inmates were organised not by condition but according to how much bother they were, from “tranquil and convalescent” to “noisy and refractory”. These days, most of the asylums have been turned into luxury flats.

There was some interesting history here, but it could only be delivered through the medium of celebrity. This means serious faces, stilted conversations with historians, a few tears and a certain amount of umbrage taken after the fact. Sweeney’s great-great-grandfather was committed to an asylum with dementia in 1901. “But this is an illness!” she said, outraged. Their main job, apart from saying the obvious out loud (“So that wouldn’t have been good for his mindset, would it?”) was overreacting to long past events concerning people they had never met. They struggled to carry it off. Their historian friends were made of tougher stuff, and occasionally looked uncomfortable being proximate to such po-faced emoting.

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Secrets from the Asylum made me thankful I was born in my generation and not in previous ones. Who knows where I might have landed had I voiced some of the opinions I have today about world affairs, religion and society in general. It’s scary to realize that one’s freedom is ever subject to authorities who think they know what’s right, what’s not and who they think is mentally insane.  Very sobering…

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