God in the mental dustbin (Summary of a talk by Revd. Ian Gregory)
Tuesday 26th May 2015
PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY MEETING 12 April 2015
"God and the mental dustbin"
We were pleased to have Ian Gregory introduce our discussion on the subject of mental incapacity. He based his talk on the book entitled 'Stallington Behind These Walls', written by a former nurse Franco Scibetta and published in 2011.
Stallington Hall in the early 1900s was a place for the 'feeble minded' and some patients' notes contained the words 'idiot' or 'imbecile'. In those days nobody thought what else could be done with the mentally disabled. 'Out of sight out of mind' could easily be reversed to 'Out of mind, out of sight'. The Nazi answer was genocide of inferior groups; others suggest eugenics or chemical castration or abortion. In the discussion, opinion was divided about whether abortion is the answer if it is known that someone will be born severely disabled.
We were reminded of the difference between severely disturbed or subnormal (as defined in the Mental Health Act 1959) for which there is no cure and those who are mentally ill (including depression, dementia, bi-polar, psychosis, neurosis, schizophrenia, compulsive behaviour etc.) for which there may be some kind of treatment and in some cases a cure. There are other categories also, such as Downs Syndrome.
When it was decided that places like Stallington should close, we entered the era of 'care in the community'; there was some disagreement about this, with finance being given as one reason for the change, but we were agreed that having such people in smaller ordinary-sized homes was a big improvement. There was mention of tranquilisers and anti-depressive drugs, but these are addictive and expensive, yet they help people not to think and some mentally disturbed people 'in the community' lead a life of lonely suffering in the streets. On the other hand, when people were put in places like Stallington they were hidden away 'for their own good and ours'. They were confined with no opportunity to escape or venture out into the surrounding world.
In his book, Franco says he was motivated to help others and intrigued by what was going on in Stallington, so he trained as a nurse and spent 20 years there. He describes some very grim and disgusting behaviour. Yet he also mentions the care he was able to provide. For example, there was a woman with a distended head who at first sight seemed horrible, but as he got to know her, he befriended her. In answer to a question, we learned how the staff often had problems of their own and were affected by the institution in which they worked. Yet Franco travelled alongside the patients, in their constrained lives, shared their pain, felt for their delusions, their fear and emptiness. This sharing of their suffering involved the exhausting business of physical nursing, cleaning them, being screamed at, spat on, cursed and abused. Most of us can't do that; we can only try as best we can to understand and support those who can do it. Thinking of each patient, we can say that somewhere deep in the heart of the eternal, a note is made for this much troubled person, apparently discarded in the human dustbin, where somebody cared.
Among the Jews of New Testament times, there were two dominant social visions; holiness or pure living according to scripture and compassion. Purity was regarded as a prior religious requirement, but Jesus used compassion as a challenge to that. Anyone with a physical or mental disease was regarded as possessed by a demon and not in the image of God. So Jesus' healing of a demon-possessed man is a powerful moment in his attack on the Jewish vision. Marcus Borg says that one of the central marks of the life of Jesus was his compassion; Luke 6, v.36 "Be compassionate as God is compassionate", which is a lot more than just feeling sorry.
I think it is a fair summary of our discussion that care and compassion is the key to helping people who appear to be not 'normal'. Other relevant words are 'acceptance' and 'befriending'. This does not exclude discipline and the attempt at good behaviour.
Given the world as it is and not as we would like, whatever the cost or pain we need to be challenged to do something. We are not hear to admire the view. In Isaiah 26, v.3, we find "Thou will keep him in perfect peace (sanity?) whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee."