A gruesome reminder

Poppy Harding, Trainee Clinical Psychologist, watches Netflix’s new series Ratched.

Ratched follows the story of nurse Mildred Ratched, based on the character in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, working in a psychiatric asylum in the 1940’s. Without giving away too much of the story line, Ratched comes with scenes of bloody violence and gory procedures which seem completely barbaric. I had to remind myself that lobotomies were practised by mental health professionals rather than lone sadists; I found myself frantically Googling to find out when they stopped being performed, as the psychiatric facility Ratched works in seemed far too recent history.

It turns out that the Lucia State Hospital where Ratched resides was uncomfortably reminiscent of how those with mental health difficulties were treated for many years, and the series serves as a gruesome reminder of the history of mental health services where shackles and tranquilisers were common practice. Ratched shows the mental health professionals using their power inappropriately, with patients treated against their will and stripped of choice and dignity. In one scene a young man was held down to his bed and tranquilised, so that he didn’t ‘act out’ for the asylum’s important visitors that day. It was a horrible moment when I realised that this scene probably still plays out across inpatient units, secure settings and care homes in our current times.  

Another thing that struck me is what exactly some of the patients were being ‘treated’ for; including infantile distraction and lesbianism. I watched open-mouthed and outraged as a young woman was subjected to an ice pick through her eye socket to ‘cure’ her sexuality, under the guise of mental health treatment. It saddened me to reflect on some of the ‘conditions’ we (not only as a profession but as a society) currently deem as signs of mental ill health. I’m wondering about the utility of pathologising individual experiences and life choices, when all this is doing is continuing to feed into the systemic oppression that serves to encourage othering. With the existing harmful and prejudiced narratives surrounding topics such as gender identity and race, our profession has much to learn before we can honestly call ourselves anti-oppressive.

After binge-watching Ratched over a rainy weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the clients I have worked with who have approached their mental health challenges with the societal stigma and burden that mental ill health still carries, and how our profession’s past has a lot to answer for. Overall, Ratched is a gripping and thought-provoking series that encourages reflection on how far we have come in mental health treatment and provides a chance to consider what progress is yet to be made. 

- Check out our archive collections on asylums and lobotomies.

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