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December 23, 2014

Looking behind the walls

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St Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Grangegorman

Charting the history of Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals has revealed damning evidence of appalling conditions and tragic stories of damaged lives in a new two-part RTÉ television documentary series ‘Behind the Walls’, reports Aoife Connors.

A new series ‘Behind the Walls’, produced and written by journalist Mary Raftery and directed by John Comiskey, describes the dominant culture that pertained in the middle decades of the 20th Century when Ireland led the world in “locking up more of its people per capita in mental hospitals, ahead even of the old Soviet Union”.

The documentary series exposes evidence of appalling conditions within Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals, where such information was, according to its makers, “kept secret” by the State.

Hanna Greally, who was in a psychiatric hospital for almost 20 years, tells her story as she emerged and wrote about her experiences in the 1970s. Greally, however, is one of the very few to recount her experiences ‘Behind the Walls’.

Within the system
Part two of the series (RTÉ One, September 12, 9.35pm) will feature the stories of individuals who were caught within the psychiatric hospital system in more recent times.

According to an RTÉ preview, the Misha Films production even reveals the “shocking experiences of one group of vulnerable patients who were sexually assaulted by their psychiatrist”.

Finally, the documentary traces the legacy of the old, custodial institutions as their closure has promised open and community-led residential mental health services.

Road to Rehab
Mapping out the road to post-injury rehabilitation has been the motivation behind another two-part autumn documentary series on RTÉ One, ‘The Road to Rehab’. Filmed at the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire, the documentary follows the interesting and touching stories of eight patients on their journey to post-injury rehabilitation.

This 50-year-old multi-disciplinary hospital has no surgical teams and promises no cures, yet it has managed to transform the lives of more than 40,000 patients since it opened its doors in 1961.

The team of medical consultants, therapists and technicians specialise in rehabilitating children and adults with irreversible brain and spinal injury and others trying to regain mobility following the loss of a limb.

Despite the immense challenges, the aim of the NRH is to maximise the individual patient’s ability as they face the challenges of a sudden life-changing injury.

On September 13 at 10.15pm (RTÉ One), the second episode will feature 28-year-old Barbara Bello Osagie who collapsed as her legs gave way following the birth of her first baby three months earlier. Unable to walk with a seriously damaged spinal disc, the injury has put the family under financial pressure. But despite the challenge, Barbara is determined to get back on her feet before her son takes his first steps.

The programme also features 22-year-old Hugh Butler, who has been in the NRH for eight months following a brain injury that has left him with little short-term memory. Hugh’s condition leaves him permanently and ravenously hungry, which has baffled his doctors and medics internationally.

Meanwhile, Carlow roofer Terry Kirwan is halfway through his rehabilitation programme and coming to terms with the cruel reality that he will not walk again. Although, with an unrelenting spirit he takes on the new challenges of adapted living arrangements, driving and operating a wheelchair as he prepares for home.

A major fan of John Deer tractors, dinosaurs and Spider Man, Liam Lynch is not unlike many seven-year-olds. Yet tragically, he has an inoperable spinal tumour that has left him unable to walk. Although he receives regular chemotherapy, Liam’s future is uncertain, meaning his parents must live one day at a time with the hope that a day will come when their child can walk again.

Another remarkable individual profiled in the documentary, Joe Murray, hasn’t taken a real step in seven years. He was crushed at age five and tragically, despite the best efforts to keep his leg, it was amputated when he was 21 years old. Since then, any attempts to fit a prosthetic leg have failed because of skin problems related to the amputation. Having spent a large part of his life on crutches, the strain on his upper body is increasing. Now aged 36, Joe risks life in a wheelchair unless he can adapt to a new prosthetic limb.

‘The Road to Rehab’ documentary is narrated by Miriam O’Callaghan and produced and directed by Aifric Ni Chianain.

Two for the road
Paralysed following a motorbike accident in his early 20s, Niall McDonnell aims to master the complex art of dog-sledding across the stunning Artic snows on the Norwegian-Swedish border in another new series on RTÉ One television.

McDonnell will be accompanied by ‘box-player’ and ‘passionate dog-lover’ Sharon Shannon in his excursion as part of the ‘Two For The Road’ series (September 15 at 8.30pm). Learning how to use sleds and working with the dogs will take up two of the four-day trip. Once these basics have been grasped, the participants will embark on two long sledding trips across the harsh but striking Nordic landscape.

Overall, the series will follow well-known public figures as they accompany six people with disabilities on various challenging and exciting adventures across the world.

However, the celebrities must simulate the conditions facing the disabled person in an effort to understand their perspective and the challenges they face.

Radio Therapy
If all the new television programmes don’t tickle your fancy, mental health will also feature on RTÉ Radio 1 in the coming week with a new Drama on One. ‘Information for the User’ by Aidan Mathews has been described by the broadcaster as a “potted guide to peace of mind and its probable side effects”.

Mathews is also the author of Lipstick on the Host and In the Poorer Quarters. The drama, produced with Kevin Reynolds, will be broadcast on September 11 at 8pm.

Meanwhile, in an upcoming programme in the RTÉ Radio 1 ‘Documentary on One’ series, 21-year-old Conor McGinnity will tell his own personal story of how his father’s depression has affected the whole family.

A DCU multimedia student and the eldest of four children, McGinnity has compiled the documentary based on his experience of supporting a loved one suffering from depression. He told IMT: “I did this kind of thing in college, so I was interested in it. I thought I had a story to tell because it was something that was affecting me at home.”

McGinnity’s parents fell in love and were engaged quickly; his mother apparently had been attracted to his father’s quiet charm.

After their honeymoon, the newly-married Peter McGinnity began to show signs of depression. After suffering a breakdown, he was admitted to a psychiatric unit when his eldest son Conor was just 15. He told IMT that his dad is now “doing a lot better”.

McGinnity described the experience as difficult and challenging. He said the effect of his dad’s depression “brought me closer to the rest of my family” but “it would make you wary about your relationships with other people… you wouldn’t really want to tell people about it.”

Despite the stigma associated with mental illness, Conor added: “Everyone I’ve told, my friends, have all been very supportive and helpful.”

The Documentary on One will be broadcast on September 10 at 1pm and can be accessed online at www.rte.ie/doconone.