‘It was like a prison’

Mary Nettle, 53, works as a mental health user consultant and is chair of MindLink. She was a voluntary inpatient at St Bernard’s Asylum, London, for three months in 1978 after stress at work caused her to have a breakdown.

“The asylum was like a prison,” she recalls. “The entrance had a gatehouse with high walls. It was a typical old asylum with about 2,000 beds. Apart from the main building, it had Nissen huts from the war.

I was housed in one of the huts. There were men’s beds at one end and women’s at the other, and a communal area in the middle. There was no privacy.

“The asylum was dark with virtually no signage so it was difficult to find your way around. It felt intimidating. The food
was horrible and I didn’t eat. I lost weight but nobody paid any attention to that.

“Patients got physically ill which wasn’t noticed. Some of them had pneumonia. The mental health system separates mind from body so they think the illness is always mental.

“The other patients made life bearable. I was friendly with a woman who was moved to the main block. I went to see her and she was in a caged bed. It was a big shock. The beds were meant to be for the patients’ protection but also meant they could be contained if they were disruptive or upset.

“I was discharged at Christmas. They diagnosed me with manic depression and gave me an outpatients’ appointment for three
months’ time. In those days there was no community care, no day centres and I was expected to get better on my own.

“The approach to treatment has changed a lot. The people providing it feel they’re in partnership with you. However, mental health services won’t change while the Mental Health Act is still forcing people to have treatment. People are stigmatised by the law.”

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