This blog is a work in progress. I have been motivated to begin writing it in response to the ongoing tragedy, scandal and chaos that is the north Wales mental health services. I have a good knowledge of these services and the history and the events that have led to the current catastrophe. But this will not be a story that begins and ends in north Wales. Over the last thirty years I have watched and gained evidence of institutional corruption in the English medical establishment – assisted by institutional corruption in the legal establishment -that enabled the mental health services in north Wales to inflict a great deal of suffering on a lot of vulnerable people, many of whom did not survive. Four years ago I gave this evidence to the Welsh Government, having been told that they were desperate to improve the mental health services (and the wider NHS) in north Wales. I trusted them to use this material to remove some very problematic people from their posts who have blighted this region for years. The evidence that I acquired was easily sufficient to dismiss a number of people and indeed to prosecute others. The Welsh Government instead fudged it -presumably because they were desperate not to admit to any failings that would then be used against them by a hostile Westminster Government. I was subjected to such severe harassment, abuse and threats that I left the area. I gained the impression that this was seen as part of the solution – I was expected to shut up about the dreadful events and then embarrassment could be avoided. Because the serious wrongdoing was never addressed, a lot of people remained in roles where they should never have been in the first place. The mental health services in north Wales have imploded, patients continue to die in alarmingly high numbers and the region is so toxic that the Health Board cannot recruit staff. The Welsh Government have now put the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board in special measures because of the failures of the mental health services. The Welsh Government told me last week that it will take time and effort to transform the mental health services in north Wales. I maintain that they will not be able to do this unless people guilty of serious wrongdoing are dismissed. At the moment that is still not happening.
A Brief History of the Beginning – That a Lot of People Have Tried To Rewrite To understand the problems in the north Wales mental health services, it is necessary to look at their history. Until the 1990s, psychiatric services were provided by the North Wales Hospital at Denbigh (simply known to everyone as ‘Denbigh’). By the mid-twentieth century, Denbigh had a seriously grim reputation, even by the standards of those sorts of big regional asylums. The things that Denbigh was notorious for according to local legend was aversion therapy for homosexuality (which people have told me was going on at Denbigh until the late 1960s) and psychosurgery – Denbigh employed an enthusiastic lobotomist, of whom I shall write more of in a minute. Indeed, Enoch Powell visited Denbigh in his capacity as Health Minister and was so appalled by what he saw that he uttered a few harsh words and returned to London, subsequently making his famous ‘Water Towers’ speech and began the programme of asylum closures. Powell’s disgust at Denbigh occurred in the 1960s – yet when I was a student in Bangor in the early 1980s Denbigh was still going strong and a was a law unto itself. Students who experienced mental health problems were still being taken there, although very few of them returned with tales of Denbigh because students were usually very rapidly returned home to be cared for.
Despite its dreadful reputation, some of the psychiatrists at Denbigh seemed to wield enormous power in the region, both over individuals and other institutions. The first psychiatrist I ever encountered had worked at Denbigh. I didn’t know this at the time. Whilst an undergrad I’d suffered severe mood swings and a GP working in the Bangor student health centre, Dr DGE Wood, wanted a psychiatric opinion. My partner at the time and myself were well acquainted with the critiques of people like Laing and Szasz and we were most reluctant to agree to this. Yet I was not getting any better and DGE Wood kept up his persuading – he told my former partner Prof BJ Brown (known to everyone as ‘Brown’) that he wanted to refer me to a psychiatrist who had enjoyed considerable success. So Brown and I eventually agreed to the consultation. It was an unmitigated disaster and we subsequently attempted to complain about this psychiatrist. Our complaints became stronger when I caught sight of the letter he had written following the consultation and found it to be so inaccurate that it could best be described as libellous. DGE Wood became very angry and at one point yelled at me ‘he’s done a lot of people a lot of good’ and stated that he wasn’t going to put up with complaints from Brown or me. On another occasion he told me that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to complain, because this psychiatrist was ‘answerable only to himself’ no less. By this time I’d started hearing tales from other students who had also encountered this man and had also made complaint. Eventually I took the matter up with the Students Union – it was clear that the University was quaking in its boots at the thought of any confrontation with this psychiatrist, which mystified me. The row continued and the Students Union welfare officer told me that the University really didn’t want to acknowledge this man’s failings. So I wrote to the vice-chancellor, Prof Eric Sunderland, who subsequently sent me a polite soothing letter acknowledging my dissatisfaction with the student psychiatric services. At this time, I heard that the dreadful psychiatrist was now terminally ill and I presumed that was why no-one wanted to confront his shortcomings – they were all being nice middle class people faced with a dying man. Years later I discovered that the psychiatrist that I had been pressurised into consulting, the man who was so successful and had helped so many, was a retired psychiatrist from Denbigh who had been a notorious lobotomist – T. Gwynne Williams.
There is another key player in the recent history of the north Wales mental health services and that was another psychiatrist from Denbigh whose whole career has been dogged by controversy and complaint – Dr Dafydd Alun Jones. (I shall be writing much about Dafydd Alun Jones on this blog later.) DA Jones has wielded the most extraordinary influence across the north Wales mental health services and indeed the wider NHS. Further details of that will follow.
Despite Denbigh’s terrible and terrifying reputation, it is interesting to consider what has been written about it. People have certainly written about the history of Denbigh but the more recent history all seems to be rather sanitised. This was an institution where sexual, physical and financial abuse of patients was alleged to be rampant (and I have heard such stories first hand from former patients and the occasional very brave former member of staff) and which was the subject of damning reports before the NHS had quite so many inspections and reports. Yet patients voices are usually absent from these accounts and the memories of former staff are foregrounded. Much of this history has been a result of collaboration with former staff. (There is a local history society relating to Denbigh which seems to be a forum for former staff – the website has an area where former staff chat to each other and share their memories, it details staff reunions etc.) Publications from these historical projects seem to locate the horrors of Denbigh firmly in the dim and distant past – there is a distinct feel of ‘it was all a very long time ago and we do things very differently now’ about it. For example there is an account of psychosurgery at Denbigh that has been written by one north Wales psychiatrist, David Crossley. What is not mentioned is that the lobotomist concerned was busy practising psychiatry until the 1980s – and that David Crossley himself worked (and I think trained at) Denbigh. If I have estimated David Crossley’s age accurately, he may well have worked at Denbigh whilst Gwynne Williams was still there. And he certainly worked there whilst the authorities were deluged with serious complaints regarding DA Jones. This phenomenon I believe has blighted north Wales – there are scores of people working in the region who trained and/or worked at Denbigh and they are deeply compromised by this. A lot of hands are not clean. Some of the people who will feature in this blog I would put in this category. For example Peter Higson, the current chairman of the Betsi Cadwalader Health Board that serves north Wales, worked there as a clinical psychologist; Dr Tony Roberts a psychiatrist at the very troubled Hergest Unit worked at Denbigh; and numerous nurses in the region. Basically, if someone trained or worked in mental health in north Wales and they’re over fifty they did some or most of that ‘training’ at Denbigh. This has not been without impact – when Denbigh finally closed its doors in the 1990s, the staff there were simply moved into the new units and community services that replaced Denbigh, taking the practices and attitudes towards patients that they’d learnt at Denbigh with them. Some of those staff are still causing problems today – as we shall see…
As for DGE Wood who referred a 21 year old student to a lobotomist – well he continued to work as a GP in the region and a few years ago was awarded an OBE for his services to medicine. He certainly performed a good service for Gwynne Williams.