Undercover in the loony bin for a year

2009-06-17 00:00

NORAH Vincent set herself a high standard in “immersion journalism” when she disguised herself as a man for a year or so, infiltrating a range of male preserves, and wrote a best-selling book — Self-Made Man — about her experiences.

Her second attempt at “immersion” — as a patient inside the U.S. mental health-care system — at the outset held less appeal for me, partly because it seemed contrived, an exploitation of her own psychological vulnerabilities.

At the end of her research for Self Made Man, Vincent did spend time, legitimately, in a locked psychiatric ward. Once inside, she realised the enormous acres of fodder available to the undercover journo and staged a return.

But, as she notes herself, what one sets out to write often bears little resemblance to the result, particularly when the self plays a role. Vincent’s experience of three different institutions (one state-funded, two private) turns out to be as much a journey of self-discovery as it is a clinical expóse of the ethos and conditions prevailing in American mental health care institutions.

Her own history of depression and intimate knowledge of the drugs traditionally prescribed for the condition, plus her ability to combine academic insight with colloquial daily observation, produce some incisive and entertaining writing on a range of issues including the “God complex” which seems to afflict many health care professionals, the difficulty (if not impossibility) of defining mental illness and the ease with which anyone, if they care to, can be admitted to a loony bin.

But it’s in the journey of self that the heart of the book emerges. Booked into the alternative Mobius clinic — as close as Vincent can get to her own interpretation of an ideal mental health facility — she finds she can no longer hide behind the role of journalist. She is all patient, forced to engage with a damaged past and a growing understanding that her future mental health is a long-term responsibility she ultimately carries alone. It makes for a compelling, intelligent and, ultimately, inspiring read.

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