Sorry for the delay, but my post of October 1 was meant as an introduction to this one, about Geel, Belgium.
I have known about Geel for some time, but NPR did a story recently and it reminded me about Geel, and about my friend, Greg.
Geel is a small farming community in Belgium that has a unique custom of caring for the mentally ill in people’s homes. The tradition began in 1480, after the death of a nun, Dymphna, an Irish princess who had fled to a convent in Geel to escape from her father who was “mad.” As a nun, Dymphna had special compassion for the mentally ill and she cared for them in her convent. Her story ended when her father followed and murdered her. She was canonized after her martyrdom, and then families began make pilgrimages to Geel with their mentally ill relatives. Eventually there were too many for the convent to handle, so instead of turning them away, people in the community took them in.
It’s a remarkable story, not just as evidence that human kindness still exists in this contentious world, but also because the system still seems to work, after 500 years! Now the process has been modernized. Guests are screened by doctors, prescribed medication when appropriate, and assigned to families. They help their host families or have jobs, and the government provides a small stipend. Some of the guests act out, depending on their diagnosis, but they are accepted by their families and by the community. According to the reporter, the host families were surprised by questions about whether their guests are a problem. The average length of stay with a family is 28 years!
The NPR piece described several examples of families’ relationships with their guests. One man twisted the buttons off his shirt every day, and every night his host would sew the buttons back on. When the reporter suggested that the host use tougher thread to save herself the trouble of her nightly repair job, she was shocked. She said, “He needs to do this.” A man with hallucinations about being chased by lions was satisfied when the host pretended to chase them away.
There were examples of violence, of abnormal sexual behaviors, and in each case the host families found ways to adjust. Both hosts and guests interviewed described themselves as being happy with their arrangement.
Several studies have been done trying to explain what makes Geel’s system work, without any real success, but one factor seems be the attitude of the host families. The guests are accepted as they are. The hosts aren’t embarrassed by them. They don’t try to “cure” them. They don’t even think of them as abnormal. This explains one of the rules for assigning guests to families. No one is assigned someone from their own family.
The reporter did look for other examples where acceptance of mental illness is practiced. It’s a little hard to replicate Geel, because they have a long tradition, everyone in the community understands and accepts the situation, and the community is rural and there are a lot of ways for someone to be useful without fitting into traditional occupations. She did find a woman who has been managing an apartment house in a US city, trying to replicate to situation in Geel, with some success.
Which brings me back to Greg. I’m certainly not any more accepting, or more broad minded than average, but Greg and I got along fine. And maybe Geel's principals of acceptance should apply not just to differences in behaviors, but also to differences in opinions and beliefs, .
We can all learn something from the people of Geel.