Cape Town, 11.05.2006: The opening of the new Valkenberg hospital. The lock-up area in the male wing of the new multi-million rand admisstions unit. Picture Brenton Geach Reporter Di Caelers

A former patient at Valkenberg Hospital, where Shrien Dewani is currently being treated, writes about her experience at the mental hospital which treats patients suffering from a range of illnesses.

Cape Town - Doctors in white coats, padded cells, injections, electro-convulsive therapy, locked gates and long dark passages with only a fluorescent light flickering…

These are common images conjured up when hearing the words Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital.

I too held these pictures in my head as a young adult. That is before I was a patient at this institution.

Being locked away is a frightening experience and although words such as “hospital”, “care” and “healing” are bandied about, state psychiatric centres are more akin to prisons.

Privacy is absent. As Valkenberg is a training hospital I often felt like a guinea pig - being observed, labelled and stigmatised. I remain uncomfortable with psychiatric statements and diagnostic treatments which do not heal.

Yet healing comes from the most extraordinary places. The time spent with fellow patients was no less than life-changing. I was able to move from an isolated and privileged existence to a space where the playing fields were levelled. The majority of the daily routine was shared with people of diverse backgrounds who had all travelled incredible journeys. I heard amazing and courageous stories and learnt a huge amount about bravery and compassion.

In my experience, mental hospitals both confine and enable people in different ways. In terms of confinement, the health system defined me as a bad person who had to be locked up. Freedom of expression and movement is severely curtailed. With the increase of mental health issues, why do we treat people with mental illness differently from the way we treat those with cancer, diabetes, auto-immune diseases and other chronic conditions?

The day-to-day hospital existence is boarded by four walls, rules, regulations and extreme structure. There is some time spent outside. As I moved through the wards towards the discharge ward, various privileges were awarded to me. By the time I reached the last ward I had really come to appreciate these small treasures. Walking around the hospital grounds and going to the tuckshop or library and wearing our own clothes became daily rituals we all looked forward to.

The doctors have heavy caseloads and there is very little consultation time. They also rotate quite often so it is common to see many doctors throughout a stay. Although it may be argued that this enables different people to see your case from different angles I would disagree.

The relationship between patient and doctor remains highly superficial and you are not allowed to articulate and author your own story – the notes, prescriptions and descriptions from other people are given greater importance. I find this desperately sad and feel that it fuels the misconceptions around mental illness, even from a medical perspective.

I developed better relationships with my fellow patients, the nursing staff and even the security guards who wearily watched over us. I realise that in state facilities, resources and personnel are limited but I still believe these doctors can be better healers. In my experience, they were outsiders, observers and reporters.

Valkenberg’s location and the original architecture offer the potential for a contained retreat. Away from the craziness out there, there is the possibility of converting the confusion within to dreams and beautiful imaginings.

As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Cape Argus