The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Almost every day I pass through the Sigfrid area, the psychiatric clinic in Växjö. One of the buildings, called Italienska palatset, is today used as studios and workshops for artists, and I spend quite a lot of time in the wood workshop. I am definitely curious about the history of the building.

The hospital is old, I have read about ‘A House of the Holy Spirit’ (”helgeandshus”), run by the church, in medieval times in Växjö. In the 16th century, the state took the responsibility for the caring of the half-witted, but the fundament was still religious – the number one treatment was praying for salvation.

The old madhouse was originally found close to the cathedral in the city center of Växjö, but in the middle of the 18th century, the institution moved to the Sigfrid area, a few kilometers south east. The huge hospital building was raised later, in 1857. The architect was Theodor Anckarsvärd, also known for the Theater and the Town hall of Växjö.

In a book by the journalist Thomas Lissing, I find some drawings of Italienska palatset and maps of the hospital area. It is really interesting. You can clearly see the social structure of the hospital: The bedrooms for the first class patients are found on the third floor, with a great view over the lake Trummen and a beautiful park. The smaller rooms for the second and third class patients are located on the first and second floor. The first class patients could use the music room, the reading room and the pool room, while the basic day room was used by the others. Men and women were kept separated – men in the northern part, women in the southern. The social distinction was obvious also for the employees – a kitchen maid earned about 30 times less than a doctor.

Until 1968 the whole area was fenced in, but today the security walls are found only around the institution for forensic psychiatry. The life inside the fences had been more or less isolated from the rest of the society until then. If someone from the outside wanted to get in or anyone from the staff needed to get out, they had to apply for permission. The staff got their own keys in the 1920.

The hospital was almost self-sufficient: Patients worked with farming, laundry, gardening, cooking or production of tools and textiles, and you could find almost all necessary professions and functions among the staff – smidths, chefs, bakers, brewers, doctors, carpenters, teachers, masons – and all of them had their home inside the gates. 

The construction plan of the main building has changed a bit, but it is still easy to identify the layers of history. What today is the major art gallery room on the second floor, was formaly used as a day room, and the two smaller gallery rooms were used as bedroom and dressing/washing room. The woodworking shop on the first floor had the same structure.

Karin Johannisson

The Swedish historian Karin Johannisson is well-known for her writings on the connections between psychiatry, the individual and the society. Our bodies (and minds) are battlefields for ideologies. The increase of different kinds of diagnosis in the last decades should, according to Karin Johannisson, be observed and analyzed: More people will probably get diagnoses, and normality will decrease. Depression, restlessness, concentration difficulties, shyness, grief, and crises are all natural parts of being a human.  Many neuropsychiatric diagnoses are of course adequate, and could really support indivdiuals and explanations, but it is also important to consider what a diagnosis does to a person – when you get the diagnosis, a kind of interaction between the diagnosis and yourself starts.

The diagnoses are definitely connected to social issues. Children from low status areas get more often diagnoses than children from high status areas. The problem is obvious: If we keep on explaining a pupil’s difficulties as medicinal, the social, cultural and economic environments will be disregarded. The diagnosis crawls into the identity and internalizes the individual.

The science of psychiatry and the demonization of the female body has for a long time been connected. The female sexuality had to be limited, restricted. We need, according to Johannisson, new and more skewed narratives to explore the position of women in the institutions of madness. Why has the norm breaking behavior of women attracted that much interest during history? Female madness has even been a kind of famous theatre directed by Doctor Jean Martin Charcot at the mental hospital La Salpétrière in Paris: Prepared shows of female hysteria in front of an audience.

 André Brouillet, Jean Martin Charcot

Karin Johannission has coined the concept cultural disorders, a kind of illness that is limited in time and to a high degree corresponds with society's structure and content (culture). Threats, norms and values are inherited in the disorder. Apathy of refugee children, electric and screen hypersensitivity, fibromyalgia, oral galvanism and burnout are examples. And many diagnoses have just left us: Homosexuality was a personality disorder until 1979 in Sweden, 1994 in Britain, 1999 in Brazil and 2001 in China. Being a transvestite was a diagnosis until 2009 in Sweden. Hysteria, which was a common (at least for women) mental illness during the turn of the last century, does just not exist today.

There is obviously an intricate interplay between the individual, the society and the science of psychiatry; the human brain (and genitals, particularly if you are a woman) has been a battlefield for different cultures.

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Since the 80’s we have seen strong scientific evidence for a connection between psychiatric diagnoses and creative professions. Professions like artist and scientist are more common in families where for example bipolarity and schizophrenia occurs. Also other diagnoses like depression, anxiety, drug addiction, autism, adhd, anorexia nervosa, and suicide is more common among creative people. The connection is most obvious among writers: It is about 50 % more likely that a writer commits suicide than the average. 

Also the relatives of a patient are more often found in creative professions. Among patients with schizophrenia, bipolarity, anorexia nervosa and to some extent autism, there is a higher presence of creativity among the relatives.

The old fellow William Shakespeare says in his comedy play A Midsummer Night's Dream “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”

The border between the genius, the society, the diagnosis and the artist is obviously blur.


 Fredrik Sandblad || 2016-08-28