Through a glass darkly

shakertreeoflifeOn Monday, I was invited to a tree planting ceremony at the Peter Hodgkinson Centre within the Lincoln Hospital. This is a facility which acts both as residential and day care provision for those with mental health problems. The tree-a ‘purple leaved beech’ now you ask-was first unveiled in a service in Lincoln Cathedral when clients and professional workers in the Centre filled the tree with papers leaves on which were written prayers and aspirations for psychiatric care in the County. As we planted the tree in its permanent home just outside the Centre, we heard some of those prayers and sentiments again. It was so good to hear calls for health and healing, for the building of a better world and for understanding and care for those who, for one reason or another, see the world differently to most of us and experience it, often painfully, in ways which ordinary people cannot understand. For, you see, I believe those who are suffering from mental ill health are often extra-ordinary people and, although their illness can be distressing, they see, hear and touch the world in exciting and vivid ways. One client showed me a piece of art work she had created: it was a delicately worked sunflower with the most wonderful written expressions about the basic goodness of the world around her-no doubt created as a reaction to some healing process or loving care that she had experienced. The truth is that we all see and experience the world ‘as if through a glass darkly’ and we often know ourselves so poorly let alone being able to know and understand others. Those with mental disturbances approach and experience the world from a different angle of view, and it can often illuminate and disturb the comfortable world of the placidly healthy.

In my late ‘teens, I worked for nearly two years as a psychiatric nurse: at the, now closed, Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield and at the (in)famous Bethlem Royal Hospital in London-the hospital from which we get the word ‘Bedlam’. Incidentally, Bethlem Royal was the hospital where the artist Dadd was incarcerated: and, as if to prove my point, it was here he painted some of his insightful and moving canvasses despite his mania. (

Middlewood was an old style asylum, which had only just closed its padded cells and moved to an open ward policy. In my early days, I carried around a huge bunch of keys like a prison warder and doled out cigarettes like someone from Guantenamo Bay. There was no real attempt at therapy, save the brutal attachment of electrodes to the head on a weekly basis and the administration of drugs which acted as medical sledgehammers. Mental Health was the Cinderella of the NHS and one was left with a real sense of the institutions being rubbish dumps for human beings.

Bethlem was different, here I was on a paediatric ward working amongst youngsters with Autism, Down’s Syndrome and advanced epilepsy. Because Bethlem had private funding, we had a ratio of four staff to each patient. We were pursuing experimental treatments including ‘time out’: cell rejuvination and a whole host of other techniques which would now be regarded as rather ‘hippy’. However, the atmosphere was positive, therapeutic and democratic-everyone on the ward had a vote about the treatment of the patient, from the Consultant to the Cleaner! But the instructive thing was that there was a deep respect for the child and for their condition: there was a vocational feel to the care the children received. My own daughter was named after one of the children on that Ward.

Now, the Mental Health scene has changed enormously and there is a recognition that clients are to be respected and listened to: and that it is in this listening that the clues for healing can often be found. It was good to stand with the health care professionals and their clients to plant that tree of hope and to be completely unsure who was who because their dress, appearance and general demeanour did not mark them out as either nurse or patient.

The image of the tree is ever-present in the Bible: from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis to the Tree of Life in Revelation. As we learn that we all of us look at life ‘through a glass darkly’, even those who are not afflicted with mental ill-health, perhaps the greatest tree we recall is the one on which Jesus died: for all, and not just for those who pretend to understand its mysteries.

 The tree is revered in Celtic imagery as that which unites Heaven and Earth. Perhaps I might conclude by uniting my earthly thoughts with the heavenly ones contained in a prayer used at our tree-planting, and composed by Robin:

Dear God, I hope for a society that recognises mental illness as condition that can be treated. We also pray for children, young people and families affected by mental health problems. HELP US TO HELP THEM. Amen


~ by Tim Ellis on November 19, 2008.

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