A life worth living
by Annie Borthwick
To tie in with the BBC series, The Secret life of a Manic Depressive, which addressed the stigma surrounding mental illness, Andrew Barton interviewed people at The Retreat in York, including 'Resident Friend' (Quaker Chaplain) Annie Borthwick.
The Retreat's idyllic grounds
There's something really different about The Retreat, but in a way it is hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. Superficially, The Retreat is just a regular psychiatric hospital, although we do specialise in helping particular groups of people with complex needs.
As with any organisation, we have our problems, and there are always day-to-day anxieties to contend with. But over and above this I find that there is a strong sense of ownership and community at The Retreat amongst both staff and residents, which is perhaps unusual nowadays.
I think this is partly to do with the fact that most of our residents stay for quite extended periods, enabling strong bonds of affection to develop, but it is also, almost tangibly, to do with the prevailing ethos of the place, which still has its roots in the principles of its Quaker founder, William Tuke. Visitors to the hospital almost always say 'I don't know what it is, but it just feels different here'.
Part of The Retreat
William Tuke and his descendants believed very strongly in the essential spiritual equality of all human beings, as do modern-day Quakers. The Retreat was founded on the principle that healing could come from living and working within a loving community in which each person had a role to play.
People who came to The Retreat when it opened in 1796 were treated with dignity and kindness, given privacy, comfort and good food, but they were also expected to contribute to the needs of others.
There was, in fact, a very high overall expectation that mentally distressed people could and would recover, and this conveyed itself to those who walked through the front door, some of whom had previously been chained up in 'madhouses' and written off as hopeless cases.
By including people in a community, by valuing their contribution (even if it was only washing a few dishes) and by talking to them as equals, a very different (and inclusive) message was being conveyed.
The tree path
Although of course, in those days, there was no medication, perhaps surprisingly, people often did, in fact, recover and go home. I'm sure this had a lot to do with the environment as well as the prevailing Quaker attitudes and values.
Thankfully, we still have that environment, a handsome building with wide corridors and large windows, now carpeted throughout, and quiet to walk through. The original expansive grounds are still in use, with many private areas where people can sit our and enjoy nature, or watch the horses in the adjoining fields.
The Retreat, as seen from the gardens
We also, I hope, retain that attitude of equality and tolerance. Mental distress can happen to any of us at any time, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. That's why I agreed to share some of my personal mental health difficulties with BBC Radio York, as did other staff. For me, being able to be vulnerable is what makes us fully human.
last updated: 18/09/2008 at 17:25
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