Judith Watson - contrasting hospital admissions at Barrow Hospital, Barrow Gurney, near Bristol (1965) and Glenside Hospital, Bristol (1969)


In 1965 I was 27 years old. That year I had my second baby in the January, and sustained a fractured pelvis in a road accident in March. Recovering very quickly with the incentive of a new baby and a toddler to look after, I was fit again by early May, and that was when a depression suddenly struck out of the blue. Perhaps I had just run out of challenges?

My GP brought the consultant to see me at home one Friday evening, and reluctantly I agreed to go into hospital as a voluntary patient. However, as I found to my cost, 9 p.m. on a Friday night was definitely the wrong time to be admitted. It meant that I couldn't have a bed in the intended villa which housed the less serious cases, but nobody thought to explain any of this to me at the time.

The particular conditions I encountered that night on admission to Barrow Hospital may well have made my first few days there more difficult than normal and perhaps atypical of most voluntary admissions.

I was put straight into the admission ward's locked dormitory, housing some 20 grey-haired and apparently toothless women in various states of undress. No reassurance was given that this was just a temporary measure, forced on me because the night staff had already come on duty and I couldn't be assessed until the following morning. That first night was absolutely terrifying, with constant weird cries and murmurings. At one point a patient who had got out of bed to use the communal commode lost her bearings and tried to get into bed with me.

Although the next few nights I was placed in a different, unlocked dormitory, I had to spend the whole weekend in the main part of the hospital with many very disturbed long-stay patients, only being admitted to Dundry Villa on the following Tuesday.

I found the main hospital a grim place. Common rooms consisted of urine- stained chairs set round the walls and a distinct lack of comfort overall. Washing and toilet facilities were frankly pretty disgusting. After two days in this environment, all I was concentrating on was getting home as soon as possible, but of course pleas to my family fell on deaf ears. In their eyes it was quite simple; I was unwell, therefore I needed to be in hospital. Given a few days, they said, I'd be bound to get used to my surroundings and make some friends.

I felt I was being punished for some crime I hadn't committed. My behaviour must have reflected this, in that when being taken back to hospital after my first home visit, I tried to jump out of a moving car. This of course only served to reinforce the family's opinion that I was a danger to myself and potentially to our children.

Once in the villa I found a few other mothers and their babies, and pleaded to have my own four-month-old baby with me, but my family thought this wasn't a suitable place for children. As a result I spent rather a lot of time helping to look after other people's babies.

Even in the slightly less formal atmosphere of the villa, the stark decor, total lack of privacy and the vast dormitories with hardly any space between beds and little room to stow one's personal possessions made for an institutional atmosphere. Washing facilities were communal, and the opportunity to take a weekly bath depended on there being a member of staff free and willing to supervise you. There was a loud bell which signalled getting-up time, and woe betide anyone who lingered in the dormitory and didn't appear for breakfast. Patients had a rota of daily tasks, mostly involving cleaning and washing up. This rota was a constant focus for disputes.

The staff seemed to concentrate mostly on maintaining a very regimented, disciplined set-up. There were few opportunities to form friendly relationships with them, and any attempt at individuality was quashed or regarded as suspect behaviour. Looking back I can see that the staff bore a heavy responsibility for our safety, but at the time they seemed more like jailors than nurses

A lot of emphasis was put on the distribution of drugs, with us lining up after each meal to receive our allotted doses, while the staff watched like hawks to make sure we swallowed the tablets. (At a later admission I found that liquid forms of the drugs made them simpler both to administer and monitor.)

As far as the drug regime was concerned, almost everybody suffering from depression seemed to be automatically put on amitriptyline and diazepam, the latter being hailed at the time as a breakthrough drug, supposedly being non-addictive, and a far superior and less dangerous sedative than phenobarbitone. Most people seemed to spend the first few days dozing in chairs, but this didn't happen to me, which made all my first impressions more powerful. I was distressed to find that older patients, rather than being paid their due respect, tended to be treated like children, though admittedly many of them seemed to be too sleepy to object. I realise now, with hindsight, that quite a lot were already developing symptoms of tardive dyskinesia as a result of their drug treatment. Every week several patients went for ECT, appearing later with crashing headaches and memory loss which they naturally found upsetting and disconcerting.

I never saw my consultant during my first hospital stay, just a series of genial Asian doctors who sadly had a much worse command of English than would be acceptable nowadays. This certainly didn't encourage you to open up about how you were feeling. Frankly I don't think they contributed much apart from rubber-stamping our drug charts.

The hospital was set in very extensive wooded grounds and after we had stabilised on our drugs, we were allowed to wander unsupervised in the vicinity of our particular women's villa, though with stern warnings about any contact with patients from other parts of the hospital.

There didn't seem to be any occupational or group therapy available at Barrow Hospital when I was there. We were pathetically grateful for any diversion. I remember being so bored that at one point I volunteered to scrub the tiled walls of the small operating theatre in the grounds, helping to clean the place up so that a long-stay patient could have his teeth extracted. The only real chance to mix with patients from other parts of the hospital was at the regular Sunday religious service, held in a pre-fabricated chapel. Though generally poorly attended, it proved a small but welcome diversion even for a professed agnostic.

It occurs to me now that as an adult voluntary patient, I could have walked out of the hospital unchallenged. But being so far out in the country, and with no idea of my bearings, this just didn't seem to be an option at the time.

My stay at Barrow Hospital lasted six weeks. On coming home, it was evident that the neighbours were keeping their distance. Certainly in Bristol in 1965 there was a very definite stigma attached to being in a psychiatric hospital, with meaningful glances being exchanged whenever anyone was 'out at Barrow Gurney'. On discharge it took a long time to re- establish former relationships, particular with older neighbours, and I felt that many of them treated me differently from that time onwards.


My second admission, nearly five years later, was a quite different and much more positive experience. Suffering again from depression, I spent three weeks in the Professorial Unit at Glenside, the large mental hospital on the outskirts of Bristol.

The unit was separate from, though housed within, the main hospital. The patients in this unit were almost all in the 18-40 age group. We were seen frequently by either Professor Gethin Morgan or one of his three house officers. There was a lot of emphasis on preparing one for discharge; we were encouraged to set goals for ourselves in regard to getting back to work or reassuming our family responsibilities.

The staff seemed to take a real interest in individual patients' concerns about what might be going on at home in their absence, and also, very importantly, about any issues around drug treatment, such as perceived side effects. There was good communication between nursing staff and doctors, and one had the impression of team work in action. There was even some humour! This was a mixed ward, with good recreational facilities. The dormitories were small with just six beds in each.

We had twice-weekly group therapy sessions with a psychologist. There was occupational therapy which included clay modelling (great fun!) and art, as well as the routine things like sticking endless pieces of mosaic onto bottles to make lamp bases. There were also relaxation classes and music therapy. Basically, the day had a structure that had been sadly lacking during my previous hospital stay.

I found it so sad that this unit was only available to a small number of patients from a limited age group. In comparing it with my previous experience of in-patient care, my fervent hope was that it might serve as a model for future psychiatric units.

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Barrow Hospital

Glenside Hospital

The original of this article was written to assist the BBC with its series State of Mind in January 2009.