April 17, 2022 – A word of caution for those approaching Professor Brendan Kelly’s latest book, In Search of Madness. If your self-esteem has recently taken a pummelling, do not attempt to read his mini-biography on the back book jacket where his numerous academic degrees and doctorates are listed.

The psychiatrist is also a researcher with hundreds of peer-reviewed publications to his credit, as well as a prolific author. You may have heard one of his regular contributions on daytime radio and, if you didn’t catch the name, thought to yourself “who is that voice of reason among the chaos?”

In this book, the good doctor manages to incorporate all of his interests, both professional and personal — history, travel and the speciality he clearly holds so dear. Indeed, his thirst for knowledge is matched only by his wanderlust; he travels to Belgium, Italy, Germany, India and the US as part of his research.

“Most of us secretly worry about our sanity, at least from time to time,” he writes. He’s not wrong. And when he writes that the criteria for mental illness “have never been more negotiable”, we realise that the progress made in the past half century when it comes to how society acknowledges and deals with serious mental illness is shaky and insufficient.  As he takes us with him on his travels, Kelly illustrates how our understanding of mental illness changes dramatically with time and geography. In India, we learn that the mentally unwell are “neglected, chained or beaten” in rural villages, echoing historical practices of confinement. Other more gruesome and distressing “treatments” included blood-letting and purging using laxatives and emetics, as well as forced bathing, “the continuous bath”. Lobotomy was “without doubt the single greatest mistake in the history of psychiatry”, he states unequivocally.

Taking a deep dive into the social history of the topic, he covers this barbarism doled out in the 19th century “lunatic asylums” and laments the “great injustice” of the institutionalisation proffered by the psychiatric hospitals throughout much of the 20th century.


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