Back in March, Slate published an article on artist James Leadbitter's newest work: Madlove: A Designer Asylum. According to the article, Leadbitter, a British artist and activist, has "endured stays in many public hospital psychiatric wards during his long struggle with mental illness." The bland, uncomfortable surroundings felt more like punishment than treatment to Leadbitter. He wondered what the ward would look like if it were designed by patients, and the inspiration for Madlove was born.
For those who don't know, which is probably most of you, psychiatric wards are usually pretty grim. I was in one in the fall of 1995. There were grates on the dirty windows. Fluorescent lights buzzed. The book shelves held nothing but battered board games. We ate on plastic tables. We sat on pleather couches. Nurses watched us from a glass cube in the corner of the room.
And this was the children's ward.
At a time when we were thoroughly broken and frightened, recovering from or on the verge of suicide attempts, when life was hard and sharp and everything hurt, we were locked in a place devoid of softness.
Leadbitter is right: punishment is the perfect word. I spent a week feeling that by being depressed, by attempting suicide, I had committed a crime. I went home thinking that if I couldn't get rid of my depression I had better at least pretend I had, otherwise I'd end up in the hospital again. And I never, ever, wanted to go back.
What would the experience have been like if my fellow patients and I had designed the ward? What if there had been beanbag chairs and strings of colored lights? What if there had been concert posters on the walls and a bottomless bucket of art supplies? What if we'd each had our own room with a large window overlooking a forest, or a mountain, or a beach? What if there had been a small park for us to walk in? (Did I mention we weren't allowed outside?) What if there had been overstuffed armchairs and books by Kurt Vonnegut?
Maybe we would have felt less hopeless. Maybe we would have felt less ashamed. Maybe we would have known that what we were experiencing was okay, and that if it happened again there was a place for us to go that was safe and comforting.
Madlove is an abstract rendering of the feedback from hundreds of people: patients as well as architects, designers, and mental health professionals. The beta version looks like a cross between a kindergarten classroom and a Dr. Seuss illustration. It isn't practical, but I guess that's not the idea. The idea is to get people thinking, and talking, about how to change the way we care for those with mental illness.
In the words of Leadbitter, "It ain't no bad thing to need a safe place to go mad." What would your safe place look like?