Narrative Medicine Monday: Architecture of Mental Illness

This fascinating National Public Radio story by Susan Stamberg reviews an exhibition at the National Building Museum exploring the links between architecture and mental health. It outlines the history of Washington, D.C.’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, first opened in 1855 and championed by Dorothea Dix, a pioneering advocate for more humane treatment of mental health patients.

The article states that Dix “‘believed that architecture and landscape architecture would really have a role in curing people.'” Do you agree? Have you witnessed physical surroundings play a significant role, either positively or negatively, for a patient or loved one with mental illness?

Some of the photos included in Stamberg’s story conjure up a dignified 19th century hotel. Dix was a proponent of having beautifully manicured grounds and St. Elizabeths was designed specifically to have “natural light and views of the outdoors” and “heat, tall arched windows and screened sleeping porches where patients could catch summer breezes.”

Writing Prompt: Use one of the photos from Stamberg’s story as a writing prompt for a free write. Imagine you are one of the patients (or nurses) in the St. Elizabeths Hospital of the 19th century. How does the space make you feel? Alternatively, if you’ve visited or worked in a contemporary inpatient mental health facility think about the design of the place. How could it be improved on? How do you think the features affect the inpatients? Write for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Jefferson’s Children

We get a glimpse into both the patient and the physician’s perspective of a manic presentation in Maureen Hirthler’s “Jefferson’s Children“. Her dramatic opening (“If you don’t do something right now, I’m going to hurt my children.”) inserts the reader into the mindset of the patient, desperately asking for help to make sense of her racing and disturbing thoughts. As the emergency physician enters the scene, the narrative shifts and the reader becomes the provider, trying to make a definitive diagnosis and determine an appropriate treatment plan. 

The physician feels the patient should be admitted for psychiatric evaluation and treatment but is unable to find a bed for her and meets resistance from both the patient and her superior. Can you feel her frustration? Have you ever been in a similar situation?

The lack of appropriate, affordable and available psychiatric treatment has been discussed and debated much in recent years. What are the barriers you’ve noted to getting yourself, your loved ones or your patients the mental health care they need? If you could create the ideal mental health system, what would that look like?
Writing Prompt: Try writing from the first person perspective of a manic patient first arriving at the hospital or clinic. What about a severely depressed patient? A very anxious patient? Now write the same scene from the perspective of the medical provider (physician or therapist). How does the scene change?

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