Vintage and still vital

2016-11-29 09:18
Dr Nomafrench Mbombo (cutting the ribbon), provincial health minister, with members of the mental health fraternity officially opened Valkenberg’s newly refurbished historic main administration building as part of the 125th anniversary celebrations last Tuesday.

Dr Nomafrench Mbombo (cutting the ribbon), provincial health minister, with members of the mental health fraternity officially opened Valkenberg’s newly refurbished historic main administration building as part of the 125th anniversary celebrations last Tuesday.

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Valkenberg Hospital may be celebrating 125 years in the business and it is still vital for the treatment of mental health.

This institution was the first psychiatric hospital in the Western Cape, laying the foundation for the delivery of quality mental healthcare in the province. The facility continues to contribute positively to the development of psychiatry in the 21st century.

Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, provincial health minister, officially opened the facility’s newly refurbished main administration building last Tuesday as the anniversary was celebrated.

A presentation on the early history of the facility, and mental health at the time, was held during the celebration.

Professor Sean Kaliski, head of Forensic Psychiatry at the facility, explained that the present institution dated from 1891.

The name Valkenberg derives from the Dutch farmer Cornelius Valk, who established a farm in 1720 on the land on which the hospital is now situated.

“In 1881, the colonial government of the Cape colony purchased the estate with a view to building a reformatory,” he said in his presentation.

“This never took place, but a lunatic asylum, as it was then called, was established instead to accommodate patients transferred from Robben Island where they were housed in the leper colony.

“The island had initially accepted patients to relieve pressure from city hospitals such as the Somerset, but reports of unhealthy conditions, overcrowding and high suicide rates resulted in the decision to transfer care of patients to the Valkenberg site.

“On 20 February 1891 the first 36 patients were transferred from Robben Island to the Valkenberg Asylum. This originally consisted of two racially segregated hospitals straddling the Liesbeeck and Black rivers.

“In the first half of the 20th century the hospital became formally associated with UCT’s Medical School.”

During the early period, treatment was limited to keeping the patients safely in the asylum, mainly as a means to protect the public.

The hospital grew rapidly and at one stage comprised more than 200 beds.

Kaliski pointed out that there were some strange conditions in life that were considered mental illnesses.

“It is interesting to note that being financially bankrupt was considered to be a mental illness and if you cheated on your spouse you would have ended up in the facility.”

Dramatic change
According to Carol Dean, CEO of the hospital, mental healthcare has changed dramatically since then and now supports the de-institutionalisation of mental health patients and reintegrating them into supportive and accepting communities.

“The preservation and restoration of historic buildings such as Valkenberg plays an important role in conserving the heritage of South Africa and the development of mental health in the province,” she says.

“Improved infrastructure also positively contributes to providing a safe and therapeutic environment for our patients.”

Dean adds that the success of the facility couldn’t have been possible without its staff members.

“Staff, who choose to work in psychiatry, are committed and passionate about this unique area of medicine.

“However, it is a difficult context in which to work; the clinical presentation of patients has changed significantly over the years, making this area of profession challenging for staff. Yet in spite of this, and difficulties such as limited resources and staff shortages, our employees remain resilient and focused.”

Valued at about R111m, the first phase of the historic administration building refurbishment project focused on creating an improved working environment for staff.

The next phase of the refurbishment is planned to be completed in March next year.

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