New schizophrenia book gives insight into mental health service

New schizophrenia book gives insight into mental health service

by Rebecca Coxon

David’s Box is a book documenting the journals and letters of a young man diagnosed with the illness in 1964 who took his own life seven years later.

Compiled and edited by clinical psychologists Richard Hallam and Michael Bender, the book pulls together letters, diaries and scribbled observations by David (not his real name) about his life inside and outside institutions as well as the harsh treatment he sometimes received, reports The Guardian.

The papers were given to Hallam and Bender by David's brother who, the book says, hoped "lessons could be learnt from them".

Hallam describes the journals as those of “a highly intelligent young man document in painstaking detail what it was like to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s - the dehumanising attitudes, the inept prescription of drugs, and other shortcomings of mental health services.”

The perceptive observations that David writes in his journals, inform us of the dilemmas that continue to challenge mental health professionals and service users today. For this reason, the authors have added a chapter on the changes to mental health services since 1970 and evaluate what progress has been made.

When he set out to write, David explained the endeavour as a way for him to "have some reference of the past" and as "a sort of Diary of a Nobody".

How little has changed

Hallam says one of the things that distinguishes David's writings is that they open a window to the world of mental health service users at a time when few personal accounts were around. It also sheds light on "what has and hasn't changed" in the time since David was writing, Hallam suggests.

"David was a fly on his own wall," says Hallam. "At times he directly addresses his audience. There is a real immediacy to it. The book is interesting too because he writes when things aren't going so well but also of the times in between."

A chapter charting the developments in mental healthcare and treatment since the 1960s was incorporated because "it is remarkable how little has changed in terms of treatment of people with serious mental illness," Hallam says.

Over-reliance on drugs

 "What the book also shows is that too often still the humanity of people with mental illness is ignored in favour of diagnostic labels. There continues to be an over-reliance on drugs [as a treatment] today."

In the book's foreword, Jacqui Dillon, chair of the Hearing Voices Network, encapsulates why many mental health campaigners believe that the telling of stories such as David's are vital. "Through this sharing of experience we are told counter-narratives which offer diverse representations of attempting to survive such adversity."

Below is an extract from one of David’s journals from an early admission aged 21:

“Dear Sir, Reference my inquiry of about a week ago, i.e. whether the last time I was here I had ECT or a brain operation, I should like to be informed, categorically and emphatically, of my actual treatment at that time. I should be most grateful if you would look up the records concerned, and put my mind at ease on this matter. Idiotic though this request may seem, I have been wondering why I left hospital with a crew cut, and why there are grooves in my head which follow the hair-line.”

 David's Box is published by Polpresa Press, priced at £15.99

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