Travel To The Mental Health Institutions That Changed History

10/10/2015 1:15 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Walking the halls of an 1850s mental asylum, past exhibits of straight jackets, lock-in bathtubs and terrifying contraptions, one thing sticks in my mind -- the most brutal things are done with good intention.

I'm in Gent, Belgium, at the Dr Guislain Museum, which tracks the taboo history of psychiatry amid the grand, old rooms and manicured lawns of the former institution.

While tourism and mental health may seem incongruous, institutions like this one tell the story of how we came to understand who we are.

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The imposing entry to the Dr Guislain Museum in Belgium. Picture: Matthew Fallon

From the fascinating to the morbid, here are some of the locations around the world that tell the history of mental health.

Dr. Guiyslan Museum, Belgium

The museum freely admits there were many mental health practitioners who did not want the dark past of their profession detailed.

As the museum says in its mission statement: "the shame they felt for the past was so strong, their own history seemed to have some sort of taboo about it".

Indeed there is a barbaric collection of implements used to 'cure' mental illness, stretching from 'magical' figurines to expel evil spirits through to medical restraints, machines that spin patients and DIY hacksaws used to cut open the brains of the deceased.

The focus of the Dr Guislain Museum, however, is the practitioners who sought to push forward our understanding of mental health and the rolling sense that each well-meaning generation improves on the last.


Graffiti near the Dr Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium. Picture: Matthew Fallon

As well as a stunning permanent exhibition, there are also passing international exhibits which, when we were there, was a collection of artworks by people with autism.

Sigmund Freud's homages in Vienna, London and Russia

People flock to psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud's former home and office in Vienna, which is now a museum.

Visitors ring a bell to enter and can stand in the same waiting room patients would sit before their session with Freud, no doubt delving into subconscious desires, wicked dreams and little-understood afflictions.

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Sigmund Freud's home, now a museum, in Vienna. Picture: Dieter Nagl / AFP/ Getty Images

When he and his family fled the Nazis in 1938, he set up shop in London and this home is also now a museum, complete with his original Persian carpet-shrouded psychoanalytic couch.

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The couch Sigmund Freud's clients would lie on. Picture: AP

In Russia, the Sigmund Freud Dream Museum delves deeper into Freud's bizarre and dark world of the subconscious. It's part of the St. Petersburg Eastern European Institute of Psychoanalysis, which is worth a look on its own.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, U.S.

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The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is a tourism destination. Pictures: AP

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In the United States, the imposing building of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was an example of attempts to harness the curative effects of architecture.

It was considered to be a sanctuary for the mentally ill in the mid-1800s and today, as well as ghost tours, zombie paintball and creepy evening balls, the museum seeks to showcase the determined individuals who tried to help better the lives of the mentally ill.

The rambling halls and original props also make it an Instagram hit.

▫️ Fourth of July at the Asylum ▫️

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Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health, UK

For an eerier trip down memory lane, the Museum of Mental Health, within the functioning Fieldhead Hospital in the UK contains a padded room identical to those that housed violent lunatic asylum patients.

#ThrowbackThursday Many of the nursing and attendant roles at the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum required no...

Posted by Mental Health Museum on Thursday, September 24, 2015

The asylum operated from 1818 to the 1990s and it has got the original mortuary table on display, as well as all manner of manacles, shackles and ether bottles.

However the museum also displays ornate and beautiful woodwork and art created by patients of the institution, reflecting the changing attitudes to rehabilitation and wellness.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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