Anne Thériault travelled to Geel, Belgium to learn more about its revolutionary approach to mental illness. She spoke with Aleysha Haniff about St. Dymphna (the patron saint of mental illness), why she opened up about her own mental health and what Canada can learn from this European city.
Aleysha Haniff: Tell me when you first heard about Geel.
Anne Thériault: It was about three years ago, and I had this idea that I was going to write a book called Deaths of the Saints. It would be Gothic horror retellings of some of the female saints, many of whom had very gory deaths. So I was researching that – which never did happen – but one of the first ones that I did was Dymphna because I found her story really interesting. Only one of the books that I read mentioned Geel, and I thought, this is so wild! Why have I never heard about this? Because I’d known about Dymphna for years and then I started researching [Geel] and I was like, wow, this program still exists. It’s been running for hundreds of years, it’s really radical and it completely counters so much of traditional western psychiatry. And I was also just astounded at how little it’s known, even though it’s been around so long and at certain points of history been much discussed within the psychiatric community.
AH: What sense did you get of the city itself?
AT: Everyone was so nice. And they were all very proud of their boarder program. People I would meet, who didn’t even know I was working on this story, were like, “Have you heard about our crazy people?” They take a lot of pride in this program and a lot of the people I talked to mentioned just how normal it felt to them growing up, and how they didn’t realize that this was different than most of the rest of the world until they were adults.
AH: What did it feel like being in Geel, after reading about it and learning about it?
AT: It felt very surreal. I’ve only ever been to Europe one other time, literally a decade ago, so everything was very new and exciting. After spending so long reading about Dymphna, I didn’t think I would actually ever go to Geel. It did feel like a very spiritual journey, to be in her church to see the box where her remains are kept, to be so physically close to this person that I’d felt so spiritually close to.
More on Broadview: The Belgian city with a radical approach to mental illness
AH: In the story itself, you’re very open about your mental health. Why did you decide to take that route?
AT: Often the stories that I’ve found the most beneficial when I’ve been struggling with my mental health have been other stories where people talk about their own journeys. I always hope that by talking about it, it’ll do a little bit to destigmatize it and maybe someone will read it and it’ll resonate with them in a way that they didn’t know they could articulate.
AH: Was it difficult for you to open up like that?
AT: I mean, I’ve written about it before. It is always difficult, and knowing that this one would be in print and in my mom’s church magazine – so that not only would she read it but all of her friends at church and all of that side of the family — that did feel very vulnerable.
AH: I noticed in your story there aren’t any anecdotes from any of the boarders or any of their families. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
AT: No. I was supposed to interview the person who helps oversee the boarder program and he is also a foster parent himself but unfortunately that interview fell through. And I had a hard time getting in contact with him when I was back in Canada, so that part didn’t make it in. But I did really want to include something like that.
AH: Your feature is very well-researched. When did you find your information?
AT: I interviewed Mike Jay, a historian who specializes in the history of psychiatry, and read his book This Way Madness Lies. I interviewed Bert Boeckx, who is the archivist at the hospital in Geel. I went to the church and then they had some pamphlets to read. There’s also a museum and I took a whole bunch of pamphlets from there. It was very scattershot, and kind of hard to research – at least the Dymphna part was hard to research because her legend wasn’t even written down until 700 years after she died, so there’s not really a lot of hard facts. I also read the book Geel Revisted by Eugeen Roosens and Lieve van de Walle.
“I think a lot of people really identified with how our system really just deals in this binary of ‘crisis’ and ‘fine.'”
AH: You’re quite active on social media. What type of reaction have you received from your followers?
AT: Very positive. I don’t think anybody has had anything critical to say about it.
AH: Did anyone come to you with any comment that you found particularly moving?
AT: Yes, there were several people who said, “I wish something like this had existed in Canada when I was going through my own difficulties with the system.” I think a lot of people really identified with how our system really just deals in this binary of “crisis” and “fine,” and there’s not really kind of ongoing preventative or supportive care.
AH: Speaking of that, what lessons can Canada learn from a place like Geel?
AT: I have a son who is in elementary school and there’s a lot of talk about inclusion in school. I think we need to talk more about inclusion in larger society. I think the biggest step will be to broaden our idea of what we think of as normal behaviour to include people who maybe have behavioural challenges or mental health challenges, who aren’t dangerous or frightening, but we view them as that because they fall outside of a narrow set of what we’ve decided is the right kind of behaviour.
AH: So, not vilifying people for being different.
AT: Vilifying or stigmatizing or even giving someone the stink-eye because they’re trying to talk to you too much in the line at Starbucks and being like “ooh, this guy’s a weirdo.” Just smile at them, treat them like anybody else.
AH: What is one thing you wanted your readers to take away?
AT: I really wanted them to understand why deinstitutionalization is so important. Anybody who has been through the mental health system will tell you it’s not great here. It’s fine, but there are huge areas that can be improved. But sometimes it’s hard to imagine how to change it or what change is possible, and so I guess I wanted readers to know a different world is possible and it’s already happening and we can do it. We can change.
This interview has been condensed and edited. For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.