"Memoirs" by John Ström-Olsen
Runwell Hospital was the last Mental Hospital to be built in Britain, and its construction was in a roundabout way an outcome of World War One. The terrifying experience of the trenches had produced a vast number of psychologically disturbed people through Shell Shock (a term now sanitized to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and for the first time there was an appreciation that the mentally ill were not simply freaks to be locked away and forgotten but ordinary people in need of care and treatment. (The changing attitude of the times is shown in Siegfried Sassoon’s portrait of W.H. Rivers in ‘Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man’, and in the best-selling 1991 novel ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker). A Royal Commission to review the entire question of mental illness was set up in 1924. It submitted a report in 1926, and this in turn led to the Mental Treatment Act of 1930. In the wake of the Act the Board of Control of the Ministry of Health in Savile Row under its mandarin W.S. Maclay pushed for a new mental hospital to be built to serve the impoverished and neglected area of West Essex, and a year or two later the Boroughs responsible, Southend and East Ham, got down to business. The hospital was laid out and equipped according to the most up-to-date ideas, and my father, Rolf Ström-Olsen, was its first Superintendent. My family lived on the grounds from 1936 until 1964, and I was born there in the Harper Unit during World War Two. What follows are some of my memories supplemented by stories told to me by my parents and other staff members of the time. Of course memory often plays tricks, and I can offer no guarantee of accuracy. I should also mention that in making sense of my story I benefited immensely from e-mail exchanges with my aunt, the late Kathleen Jones, formerly professor emeritus at York University, who was one of the foremost historians of the mental health services in Britain.
My father was barely 32 at the time he was appointed. That the committee should have chosen so young a man to head up their hospital was a sign that they were determined that it should be the flagship of a new age for the mentally ill: they wanted a young man with fresh ideas rather than an older man, who though experienced might be set in his ways. Their choice, by the way, was strongly approved of by Maclay, who was to remain a staunch supporter of my father over the next decades.
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