They Must Sleep in the Center of the Bed
January 9, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Would you take a mentally-ill stranger into your home to live with you like family, possibly for the rest of his life? What if your town had been doing it successfully for 700 years? Welcome to Geel, Belgium.

Geel (or Gheel) is the traditional location of the martyrdom of St. Dymphna, a legendary Irish princess whose father went mad upon her mother's death and beheaded his own daughter after she refused to marry him. In 1349 a church was built on the outskirts of Geel dedicated to St. Dymphna, considered the patron saint of various mental and nervous disorders. Pilgrims suffering from madness and seeking healing began flocking to the town, overflowing the church's ability to house them. The overflow pilgrims were housed by local townsfolk as an act of Christian charity, a tradition that led to widespread tolerance in the town for the mad and troubled, and many of the pilgrims simply stayed, living with the families that hosted them and doing farm labor.

The tradition became a part of town life and continued under Church control until 1850, when oversight was transferred from the Church to the government -- and it so continues to this day, with some boarders having lived with three successive generations of the same host family. "A boarder is treated as a member of the family: involved in everything, and particularly encouraged to form a strong bond with the children, a relationship that is seen as beneficial to both parties. The boarder’s conduct is expected to meet the same basic standards as everybody else’s, though it’s also understood that he or she might not have the same coping resources as others. Odd behaviour is ignored where possible, and when necessary dealt with discreetly. Those who meet these standards are ‘good’; others can be described as ‘difficult’, but never ‘bad’, ‘dumb’ or ‘crazy’." (Aeon story linked above)

More from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
[I]n Geel, people with chronic mental illness who are not deemed dangerous are not shunted to squalid rooming houses in a rundown part of town, as they often are in Milwaukee. Nor are they left to fend for themselves in homeless shelters or on the streets. They are embraced.

"My father always said, 'These are the best children. They must sleep in the center of the bed,'" said Sister Tarcisia, 86, a nun who grew up with the tradition of keeping boarders in her home. She now lives in the convent at St. Augustine where Geel's tradition began.
Photo gallery of one family
posted by Eyebrows McGee (24 comments total) 124 users marked this as a favorite

 
This post makes my heart light. I will refer back to this on days I wish to weep for humanity and what we do to each other. Thank you.
posted by tilde at 2:06 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]


Wow. That was fascinating. I had no idea such a place existed. Posts like these are why I keep coming back to MetaFilter.
posted by misozaki at 2:07 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


This is very sweet and very humane.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:18 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


That photo set. My heart just doubled in size.
posted by arcticseal at 2:27 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


This is such a beautiful thing and I thank you for posting it.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 2:34 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


May I put in a plug for Shared Lives for UK readers, a long-running and truly amazing model of care where people become part of the family?

They can accommodate people with disabilities, mental health needs and dementia, to name a few. Always pains me that its not better known as its absolutely what I'd want for me or a family member.
posted by welovelife at 2:42 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]


Amazing, and baffling that Geel has been so anonymous for hundreds of years.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:45 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Wow! What wonderful people. Liked the doggie too.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:11 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


In a lot of ways the best of the last 200 years has been progressively expanding the idea of who must be considered completely human by society at large. Maybe Geel is just a bit further in the future than the rest of us.
posted by shothotbot at 3:40 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


I think this is the second link to aeon in a week. Either we have a good website or an astroturfing mole. Or both.
posted by Halogenhat at 4:03 PM on January 9


I think this is a wonderful thing, and I'm totally impressed with the people of Geel. I just don't think I could do this though. With all the best intentions in the world, as a sometime introvert, I can hardly stand living with DH BlueHorse.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:09 PM on January 9


This is so beautiful. I don't know if I'm particularly vulnerable today or what, but I'm just sitting here crying. So beautiful.
posted by Myca at 4:12 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


anything that pisses off tom cruise is alright by me.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 4:24 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


brb, moving to geel
posted by divabat at 4:28 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


This grinch's small heart grew three sizes today.
posted by bfranklin at 4:52 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


I'm in a wheelchair and I'm continually amazed at the number of strangers who go out of their way to be helpful. It's almost a certainty that every time I go out and around town for a few hours there will be an occasion when I'm approaching a door and someone will come running to open it, or if I'm in the grocery, always people are offering to get things down off the high shelves for me, etc. It's a real eye-opener - not something you'd imagine, considering all the negative stories we hear and read, but honestly, people are amazing.

But this story concerns an entire community dedicated to caring for those who are vulnerable due to mental illness! It doesn't get any more beautiful than that.

Thank you so much for this story and thank you especially to the people of Geel.
posted by aryma at 5:54 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]


What you mean we don't have to treat mentally ill people as social pariahs?

the dickens you say
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:03 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I found one more article with a little more history of the practice, on what I believe is the website belonging to the mental hospital in Geel:
When the natural family could pay for their relative’s upkeep, Dr. Van Ravensteyn said, they did so, but before Napoleon’s 1797 invasion, the church provided most funds. ... Under Napoleon the church and the sick room were closed, the convent with its hospital dissolved. A centuries-old commitment to the mentally ill, however, could not so easily be ended; the foster-family system continued. Later, the Nazis met this same community resolve, and left the mentally ill, exterminated elsewhere, untouched in Geel. “The town would have risen in outrage,” we were told. In fact, so inviolate was the tradition that Jews were often concealed here as mental patients.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:18 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]


Amazing. Thanks so much for posting.
posted by latkes at 7:25 PM on January 9


I am glad to read that this is alongside a strong system of hospital care, social workers and training for the families (although the article sounded a little critical of that).

My family took in a series of mentally ill people from the community over the years while I was growing up. Most boarded with us for three to four years before moving on (usually due to increasing clashes with my parents). It was very stressful for us as a family, as the boarders would inevitably have mental health crises on a regular basis, including suicide attempts or disappearances for days on end where we feared for their lives.

I also don't think it worked out well for the boarders themselves. My parents did this because they thought the medical and social work system for the mentally ill did not work well (which is probably true), and that a warm family environment would be better than medicalised treatment (probably not true). They didn't discourage the boarders from taking medication or seeing psychiatrists etc, but they didn't encourage it either, and subtly pushed people instead into religious counselling, retreats, and other practices which are not scientifically proven to help with serious mental illness.

So yeah, I think a parallel medical/family-based system is much better than trying either of the two on their own.
posted by lollusc at 11:42 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


I also don't think it worked out well for the boarders themselves. My parents did this because they thought the medical and social work system for the mentally ill did not work well (which is probably true)

That is, in Canada, true.

and that a warm family environment would be better than medicalised treatment (probably not true)

Speaking as a mentally ill person but not speaking for all mentally ill people, I'd have to disagree with you there. Depending on how that environment is presented.

They didn't discourage the boarders from taking medication or seeing psychiatrists etc

Hey that's good!

but they didn't encourage it either

uh oh

and subtly pushed people instead into religious counselling, retreats, and other practices which are not scientifically proven to help with serious mental illness.

yeah, not okay.

But they came from the right place (Let's Help People!), and that is a really amazingly good place to start. Nudging to "Let's help people in the ways which are proven to help people -- love, a purpose in life, therapy" would I think result in awesome results for everyone involved.

Encourage the good bits, and push the not-so-good bits into being good bits.

Maybe I'm biased but anything that involves treating the mentally ill as people first and diagnosis second is something I am 100% on board with.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:09 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I think this is the second link to aeon in a week. Either we have a good website or an astroturfing mole. Or both.

For what it's worth, I love Aeon. Excellent, excellent website. And I didn't hear of it from here either - it was mentioned in a podcast I listen to. So I'm going to go with Door #1.

The Aeon article made me both hopeful and sad, to be honest. It really put into focus exactly what "modernity" means, and what exactly we are giving up by achieving it. I'm not saying I want to go back and work the land on the strength of a stick and my back, or have no option other than to live in my village of origin completely enmeshed with my family of origin, but the loss of community bonds as we individualize is heartbreaking. I don't think the Geel model will be viable in the future, and this makes me sad.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:12 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


What I found heartwarming about this story was how it appeared to benefit not just the people who were taken in by the families, but those who also took them in.

What of the videos in one of the linked articles (it wasn't in the text of the article or I would point to that), the woman who has taken in Luc and Dis mentions that if it weren't for them, she would have no reason to get up at 7 in the morning. So in the end, it appears to be a community where everyone benefits.


When I read the articles, I was also very impressed how well thought out the system in Geel is.

Someone who has a psychiatric condition has the option to live independently or go to a family. I was also impressed by the resources available, which is probably far more than you would see in any part of the world. From the article:

The area around Geel is divided into three zones, and teams are assigned to each. Each team has a doctor, social worker, occupational therapist and a nurse. Families are considered partners in their guests' care. They regularly consult with the district nurses, who stop in at least once a month to check on how things are going....

...The hospital sponsors a day center where patients can play billiards or bumper pool, watch TV, take art classes, eat lunch or just visit. A bicycle repair shop on the hospital grounds allows some of the boarders a chance to earn extra spending money.


Hats off to Geel, Belgium. May the rest of the world aspire to be a bit more like them.

Thanks for sharing these articles, Eyebrows McGee.
posted by Wolfster at 9:19 AM on January 10


Beautiful humanity!
posted by Pocahontas at 1:52 PM on January 10


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