Play marks end of Whitchurch Hospital

Whitchurch Hospital. Picture: CC

Whitchurch Hospital, one of Cardiff’s landmarks, will finally close. Picture: CC

A special play and an exhibition marked the close of Whitchurch Hospital. From April it will move to a new, purpose-built hospital in Llandough.

Since 1908 Whitchurch Hospital has been in the business of treating people with mental illness. A disused ward at Whitchurch Hospital opened its doors to the public for one last time with two projects: a play called: ‘Moment(o)s of Leaving’, and an exhibition called: ‘The End of an Era’.

Elaine Paton directed the play. It looks at the evocative location of the site and addresses important public issues such as mental health through strong and emotional performances. It also expresses the theme of ‘leaving’: both departure from the hospital and how the ‘self’ copes with living with mental illness.

Ms Paton explained: “We started to think that when you become mentally unwell you leave yourself behind. So the theme of the whole project is about leaving and hence called ‘momentos of leaving’. We represent the history of the hospital and we’re representing current staff and ex-staff by audio. We also share our own experiences and the experiences of people we know who’ve been mentally unwell. I’ve always felt that the only way you can depict mental illness, because a lot of the time it’s invisible, particularly depression, is to do it physically.”

Ms Paton also explored a more private history, revealing personal stories from her own family archive, revisiting different moments when both parents were patients at Whitchurch as well as her own journey with and within the mental health care system.

She said: “I used to come to visit my mother. I used to come to visit my father. And in fact, in 1980, when I left Wales to go and live in Australia because I had been offered some theatre work there, my mother was actually here as a patient. So I said ‘goodbye’ to her here, and then I left the hospital, caught the train to London and the next day flew from Heathrow to Australia. Life’s a funny old thing. Who would have thought that all this time later I would end up actually doing a project here on mental illness?”

Ms Paton continued: “I had severe depression and was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder which led to a period of manic behaviour. So, the reason for using autobiographical material will hopefully help other people. The idea is that it might help people to understand what it’s like to be mentally unwell.”

Elaine Paton is Artistic Director of Moment(o)s of Leaving. Photo: CNP

Elaine Paton is Artistic Director of Moment(o)s of Leaving. Photo: CNP

The Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society collected biographical material and stories that came from the site.

Gwawr Faulconbridge, secretary of the Historical Society, said: “We found out about one of the sisters that worked here in the 1930s and we’ve done a little feature on her. We also found that her husband worked here. And we’ve got a photograph of them getting married. Just things like that coming together is lovely. I think there are so many more stories out there that we’re just waiting to discover.”

Ms Faulconbridge also talked about her work as a mental health pharmacist. “I started here in 1994 as a student pharmacist. I stayed here for a year and really enjoyed it. Mental health is a fascinating and very interesting field to work in. Two days are never ever the same. Then I left to do some more training and came back again in 1999 to continue here as a pharmacist. There’s lots of treatment for mental health. You get an opportunity to chat with people that need to go on treatment about what’s appropriate for them and then try and select the best drug for them. You get a lot of contact with the patients. And it’s really really good.”

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Camera Operator: Inger Kitt

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