On Denbigh Mental, depression and Clara Hughes

Editor’s Note: Catrin Owen is the City of Edmonton’s Deputy City Manager, Communications and Engagement.

I grew up not far from The North Wales Hospital, known to all who dared breathe its name as Denbigh Mental.

Located on the outskirts of the pretty market town of
Denbigh, it was an old fashioned asylum. An imposing Victorian Gothic building
that would not be out of place in a horror movie, its mythology was as intricate as
its architecture: this was a place that was only spoken about in hushed tones.
Built for 200 people, at its busiest, it housed 1500 patients. Some were caged,
many were restrained, the straightjacket was ubiquitous, and experiments with
lobotomies were routine. The place was feared, but worse than that, the thought
of “going mental” was positively appalling.

The shame of having a loved one committed to Denbigh Mental was enough to
silence an entire family. Mysterious illnesses were concocted, stories of being
seen by medical specialists in other parts of the country masked the reality of
having a family member in the big house on the hill. Being mentally ill was the
worst possible blight.

As I think about it now, there were likely severely mentally ill patients there,
sufferers with schizophrenia, paranoid delusions and all manner of psychoses –
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] but I’m pretty sure, given how crude diagnosis was in the day, that there were
also women with postpartum depression, men who had not fared well in either World War,[/perfectpullquote]
people who had suffered the devastating effects of poverty and
childhood trauma, maybe even people on the autism spectrum who had no
mental illness, but were deemed “different.” If they were at Denbigh Mental, they
were all, whatever their story, mad. And “madness” meant deep shame, an
institutionalized life, and massive stigma for families who couldn’t speak the pain
of their relatives.

noondayDenbigh Mental closed for good in 1995. It’s not that long ago. Just six years after that, I read the most fascinating book about depression by Andrew Solomon called The Noonday Demon. A sweeping 800-page overview of the history, sociology and pharmacology of this commonplace illness, the quotation that I found so elegant and poignant was this one:

“Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

It’s normal to be very sad when awful things happen, but to be crippled by grief, sorrow or anxiety when trying to get through one’s day-to-day life is a sign of illness. This is the illness that Clara Hughes has been so eloquent about. Her heartbreaking story of being on top of the world as an athlete but in agony on the podium, is her very personal way of breaking down the stigma that has plagued mental illness for centuries. Had Clara been born a hundred yearsearlier (and in a windswept corner of Wales), she could have been involuntarily committed to Denbigh Mental, possibly shunned and most likely spent years in the asylum.

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The good news is that we talk about depression and other mental illnesses now.
And while people still call in to work with “the flu” when they’re in the depths
of despair or at the height of anxiety, there is finally a way to talk about the most
commonplace illness among us. Talking about this—and bringing the issue out
of the shadows— is important. And so, to honour every inmate of Denbigh Mental, I will be supporting Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign today. For every text or call I make, or for every Tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video view or Snapchat sent using #BellLetsTalk, Bell will donate 5 cents more to mental health initiatives.

Please take care of yourself and each other.bell

Catrin Owen is the City of Edmonton’s Deputy City Manager, Communications and Engagement.

Photos: Daily Mail; Amazon; clara-hughes.com; Bell