Book Review: Committed to the Sane Asylum

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2014-04-07


Committed to the Sane Asylum: Narratives on Mental Wellness and Healing by Susan Schellenberg, and Rosemary Barnes. Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2009

Review by Jane Shulman 

See also Jane Shulman's article "Uncharted territory" about women's experiences as reflected in psychiatric charts 

In Committed to the Sane Asylum: Narratives on Mental Wellness and Healing, artist Susan Schellenberg and psychologist Rosemary Barnes explore their relationships with mental health and their commitment to healing—Schellenberg’s as a patient and Barnes’ as a clinician.

The pair became friends while Schellenberg was re-envisioning her life after withdrawing from psychiatric drugs that she had been prescribed for schizophrenia and decades of mental health struggles. She was discovering her artistic talent and it had become a prominent part of her healing strategy.

Barnes, meanwhile, was on the cusp of a significant professional shift that would see her question the schism between her work life and personal values. What brought the women together, unbeknownst to either of them at the time, was a mutual desire to understand their past and find joy in making choices that honoured their whole selves.

What sets this book apart is the insight it provides into the patient and clinician experiences in the parallel and often overlapping narratives. Schellenberg and Barnes have never had a patient-clinician relationship, but their identities as each inform their friendship, and their experiences individually and together fuel each other’s transformation. This is a story of people exploring their past in a quest to understand who they are and where they are headed.

The Winter Break by S. Schellenberg

As a clinician over several decades, Barnes looks at how her view of the system and her part in it shifted. We accompany her as she moves from being a young lesbian not particularly comfortable with her sexual orientation, and a traditionally trained psychologist, to a more mature clinician who made huge professional changes so that her work aligned with her beliefs. She explores this evolution by writing Schellenberg’s case as if she, Barnes, had been the treating clinician at various points over many years (long before they knew each other).

This is also a story about the violence that can be inflicted by a psychiatric system focused on diagnosing and managing mental health symptoms with drugs and hospitalization rather than looking at people holistically and finding solutions that might suit them better. Through their stories, Schellenberg and Barnes look at women’s societal roles and the consequences of challenging those roles. For some women, breaking from the roles of the good daughter, dutiful wife and devoted mother was (and still is) sometimes treated as a psychiatric condition, leading women to be medicated into compliance.  

Barnes’ experience as a young psychologist in the 1970s and ‘80s weaves a similar tale of strict gender roles. To succeed in a hospital setting, Barnes details how she had to comply with subtle and overt rules about the way women “should” dress and behave.

War is a metaphor for madness in this book—the problematic approach to recovery depicted as an epic battle against unwanted parts of oneself. Schellenberg and Barnes’ stories advocate exploring and embracing ourselves wholly. Schellenberg shares pages from her files as a psychiatric patient, which, she says, allows the medical professionals she interacted with to tell their side of the story. Reading the charts is surreal. It is gut-wrenching to see the impersonal nature of the notes, and to realize the profound impact that these superficial, subjective observations had on Schellenberg’s life.

In stark contrast is a section of photographs of Schellenberg’s artwork—images that she produced when she was adjusting to life off psychiatric drugs. The paintings served as a dream journal, helping her to connect with her unconscious mind and to heal. The artwork reveals aspects of Schellenberg’s life and experiences that seem completely unexamined in her charts. 

The book is compellingly frank and accessible. The stories are intensely personal. Schellenberg and Barnes share with such honesty that it is easy to become immersed. These are stories about truth—the courage to look for it and the healing that comes from embracing it.

Jane Shulman is a Montreal-based health researcher and journalist. She has worked as CWHN's webinar producer and director of knowledge exchange.