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A Morning at The Bethlem with PhD Students: Art, History and Coffee

Phoebe Wallman

PhD Student, Psychosis Studies

17 May 2024

This spring, PhD students, researchers and clinicians from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience visited the oldest psychiatric institution in the world, The Royal Bethlem Hospital, thanks to the generous support of the PGR Student Wellbeing Communities Fund.

The Royal Bethlem Hospital started as a Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem (pronounced both “Bethlem” and “Bedlam” by Londoners) in 1247 with the intention of giving refuge to the poor. Over time, the monks accepted more people who were unable to care for themselves, the majority of whom were people in mental distress. In 1547, King Henry VIII designated it a royal hospital (his picture still hangs in the boardroom today) and in 1676, it was moved to Moorfields (now the site of Liverpool Street Station) and became the first purpose-built hospital for mentally unwell people.

Although during the 17th Century the building had an opulent façade, inside, the treatment was far from luxurious. At the time, it was considered religious duty to be compassionate and care for the mentally unwell, and the hospital relied on charitable donations. There were also paid tours for the public to observe patients which ran up until 1770. As the building began to crumble and patient numbers increased, the hospital moved to Southwark (now home to the Imperial War Museum) in 1815.

As David, the Museum of the Mind’s archivist, told our group, we were able to see Bethlem at its worst through artefacts from its turbulent past in the permanent exhibition but also at its best, as we toured 200 acres of green space that the hospital is now spread across in Beckenham.

Bethlem Visit Tour Photo

Jill, a museum volunteer, gave us a tour of the hospital's modern history since its relocation in 1930, pointing out everything from the William Morris stained glassed chapel, which was preserved during WW2 when Bromley was part of the “bomb” alley, to the Mother and Baby Unit, one of just a few in the country, as featured by Louis Theroux’s documentary, Mothers on the Edge.

As well as honouring artists such as Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed him in the 2021 film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and Richard Dadd, who spent time at the hospital, the Bethlem Gallery displays and sells service-user artwork. The Museum of the Mind, whilst not shying away from the past, focuses on exploring experiences, confronting stigma, and hearing first-hand from people with mental health conditions and experiences today.

The Bethlem today also has strong a focus on occupational health. We met Ben, who runs GUTS café which is staffed by residents of the Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit. Here residents can practise Exposure and Response Prevention, an important treatment for anxiety, and develop vocational skills such as barista training and baking. The homemade sourdough toasties, spiced lentil soup, banana bread and Brazilian speciality coffee were amazing! What’s more, the café serves whole food that promotes good gut health and explores the relationship between the gut and the mind. Fittingly, it is in the former garage of Dr George Porter Phillips, a physician working at The Bethlem in the early 20th century, who noticed those who had struggled with mental health often struggled with digestive issues.

The fresh food doesn’t stop there, The Walled Garden is open to the public at lunchtimes and enables patients and staff to connect with nature, grow vegetables and engage with wildlife. l left with two delicious jams from the gift shop!

The Bethlem may be further out of central London than some of its previous sites, but its current more peaceful location is arguably more connected through community as the grounds are open to the public with downloadable nature trails and even a parkrun every Saturday! I highly recommend you consider it if you are looking for an interesting day out.

With special thanks to The PGR Wellbeing Communities Fund and Ali and Michelle at the Museum of the Mind for making this memorable event happen.

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