The movie “Mental Notes” is showing at the Paramount in Courtenay Place
The bad old, very bad old days of mental health care in New Zealand are recalled with dismay, disbelief and a touch of gallows humour by five survivors in Jim Marbrook's gently affirmative documentary. All were institutionalised in places that luckier New Zealanders remember just driving past with a contraction of fear and curiosity, scary places that burrowed into national consciousness and individual insecurity for generations. In this look back at the days when those with Mental Illness were locked away in large hospitals – sometimes for life, 5 main characters are followed while they return to some of the biggest and baddest “bins”.around the country. Most are now rotting shells, some have been boarded up or reduced to dust. Our five main subjects, Anne helm, Roy brown, John Tovey, Francis Ruwhiu and Peter Finlay are directed by Jim Marbrook.
IN THE BINS: Film-maker Jim Marbrook interviewed ex-patients and staff of Porirua Lunatic Asylum in his film Mental Notes, screening in Wellington this week.PREVIEW: A dark slice of Porirua's history is explored in a documentary screening in Wellington this week.
Auckland film-maker Jim Marbrook's Mental Notes is the first feature-length exploration of New Zealand's mental institutions, one of the largest which was Porirua Lunatic Asylum.
Marbrook travelled the country interviewing ex- patients and staff of the asylums known colloquially as "the bins".
The documentary was inspired by an earlier film Marbrook had made about Rangitikei's Lake Alice Hospital. Despite all his research, Marbrook was still shocked by some of the stories he was told while making Mental Notes.
One Dunedin patient was given a therapy where she was put to sleep for six weeks.
"Basically the idea was you would put someone to sleep for a few weeks and your body would shut down and it would be like rebooting a computer, I guess.
"But practically that situation did all sorts of damage," Marbrook says.
This patient's body weight had doubled when she woke up, and her parents didn't recognise her when they visited, he says.
"The shock was that it was in some way allowable."
Some therapies that were widely accepted 50 years ago were simply overused, Marbrook says.
"For me it's interesting to see how a treatment which had a degree of success in some sections was just kind of used as a kind of blanket treatment.
"The dosage of drugs was so high and now you'd be getting maybe a 10th of that."
Some therapies like electric shock treatment were simply abused.
"Probably the worst example of a clinical tool being used in quite a savage and damaging way was electric shocks to the genitals."
Also upsetting were stories of patients who today would not be considered mentally disturbed - many wards of the state were institutionalised in Porirua.
"There was a sense of 'These are troublesome people, let's put them in the bin'," Marbrook says.
While some patients said they benefited from hospitalisation, most suffered from the poor treatment of their illnesses.
"If the film has a thesis it's that these things are made tremendously more difficult within an institutional framework," Marbrook says.
Acknowledgements: Elaine Winchester