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Voluntary Madness By Norah Vincent (Chatto & Windus)

Last update - Monday, August 1, 2011, 11:54 By Metro Éireann

In 2006 ‘immersion journalist’ Norah Vincent recounted her experience of pretending to be a man in Self-Made Man, a book that made lots of noise and shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

This time around, partly due to the emotional trauma that she suffered from having finished the first book, Vincent immersed herself in the American mental health system in an attempt to reveal its weak spots and contradictory existence, using her own mental health CV – which included a history of depression and previous mental health institution sojourns – as her way in.
To cover as much of the area as possible and to be able to get useful insights, she chose three very different kinds of institutions, the first one being a public mental health ward in the inner city.
Here she discovers a staff team as apathetic as its patients. Nobody seems to be interested in recovery as staff are more focused on keeping set rules and doling out a wide range of medicine to ensure the patients are kept docile and drooling quietly in their corners.
Having voluntarily put herself into this position, Vincent gets away with her self intact by not taking the prescribed medications and being vigilant. Needless to say, she leaves the institution in not much better form than she entered it.
Her next stay is in a private hospital which offers her more freedom, and thus perhaps a bit more of a chance at altering her miserable state of mind, but in conclusion ends up having little effect.
Finally, a more suitable and specialised place is chosen. This is Mobius, a fully kitted-out sort of training centre with Buddhist leanings. Here Vincent finally feels at home and gets some real results – her biggest revelation being that it’s a fulltime job to try to keep sane in today’s world.
This is an engaging and sometimes painfully human book, which leads to interesting if mostly predictable insights. The mental health system, in America and the west in general, is more or less in the dark as to how to treat people with mental health issues. However, there are some methods that are better than others: that is, those that are more aware of its short fallings do not just pass the meds without thought or care; they are more human and give more reason for the sufferer to become more proactive in his or her own recovery and healing.
Nevertheless, Vincent also recognises that few sufferers are really ready or interested in the recovery side of mental health. And without that willingness to change, there is little that society or any treatment can do, other than contain for a while. But at least if that containment is a bit more human and empowering, there might be a chance one day for someone to taste a life of a little peace.

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