Voluntary Madness – Norah Vincent
Norah Vincent is an American “immersion” journalist whose previous book “Self Made Man” involved her spending 18 months disguised as a man. Curiouser and curiouser…indeed the strain of adopting this disguise led to the book project for Voluntary Madness, initially intended to be an undercover investigation of the US mental health system, becoming a personal account of Vincent’s descent into depression.
Norah decides to voluntarily admit herself to three different mental health institutions with a view to giving a cross-section of available facilities. The first, Meriwether Hospital, is an inner city institution whose clientele are indigent and mostly black and Hispanic. Her second “trip” is to St Luke’s Hospital, in a more affluent area, rural and 95% white. The last stay is at Mobius, a private facility located on the coast where the emphasis is less on medication and more on therapy.
Naturally, any investigation of this sort is bound to be slightly skewed as the author has her own mental health issues but nevertheless, Vincent makes some important observations on how we, as a society, view mental illness. We do have a tendency to shut away those who don’t fit the norm, thinking medication is the answer whilst a more holistic approach including a variety of therapies, physical exercise and social contact could well be a more successful approach. Vincent does seem to have a bee in her bonnet about the influence exercised by pharmaceutical companies and yes, there is quite a lot of navel-gazing in what was intended to be an objective report but she does succeed in giving a snapshot of current good and bad practice in the treatment of mental illness. It’s very telling that it cost $6000 to spend 2 weeks in a private facility with individually tailored therapy and almost twice as much to spend 10 days in a public institution with little social contact and hardly any opportunity for physical exercise.
Whilst not a perfect book, Voluntary Madness raises important questions especially in a society where mental illness is stigmatised and where a stiff upper lip is compulsory.