On the Radio: How a little town in Belgium may show us how to care for the mentally ill

A documentary aired on CBC Radio 1 that may be of interest to some of you.

Once, there was a tall, elegant woman in her 70’s, who lived with a family in the small Flemish town of Geel in Belgium. Her name was Louise, she spoke four languages and liked to discuss the lives of princes. At night she would stand by her window and pick up messages from the sky. She had spent decades in a mental institution. Then her doctors sent her to live with the family. She stayed for 30 years. The grandchildren loved her. The foster mother grieved when Louise died. Then she took in another “guest”.

That’s what families do in Geel. Look after people who suffer from schizophrenia, from obsessive compulsive disorder; psychiatric patients with serious mental illnesses. And they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.

There is nowhere on earth quite like Geel.

It all started, legend has it, in the 7th century with a fair haired Irish princess named Dimpna who fled from the advances of her father, across the ocean to Belgium. He followed her, found her and murdered her in the town of Geel. Dimpna was canonized and became St. Dimpna, patron saint of the mentally ill. Geel became a religious shrine, a site of pilgrimage. Today it’s an internationally recognized medical shrine, the gold standard of community care for psychiatric patients.

Karin Wells‘ documentary is titled, “You Belong in Geel“.

Listen here.

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