Geel (Gheel): Belgian city of 35,000 located in province of Antwerp; internationally known for centuries old tradition of foster family care for mentally ill; associated with legend of St. Dymphna (Dimphna, Dimpna).
community recovery (proposed by author): linked to “recovery model” of treatment for mental illness, wherein individual strives to live successful, meaningful life (compare to “medical model” with goal of symptom reduction and/or cure). “Community recovery” proposes that communities can also live successfully with realities of mental illness.
During the Middle Ages, the church was the primary source of “treatment” for those besieged with various forms of what today we would call “mental illness.” Many sought such treatment by making their way to Geel, Belgium, for intervention, through the church, by St. Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill. In 1249 this legendary Celtic princess had gained sainthood based on reported miracles and a belief that centuries earlier, in the region of Geel, she chose martyrdom rather than succumbing to her father’s mad incestuous demands (see Legend of Dymphna).
As those seeking treatment filled the church and city, there developed a lack of housing for the visitors, whereupon church canons instructed townspeople to open their homes to the pilgrims. Thus was planted the seed of what would become an enduring system of foster family care for the mentally ill. Geel’s legendary foster family care system continued to evolve over the centuries and even today, in the 21st century, functions as one part of a modern comprehensive system of mental health services, located in Geel and serving the entire region (see Geel Time Line and OPZ, Public Psychiatric Hospital web-site).
In the United States, as we strive to implement mental health programs that promote community integration, it can be helpful to look for guidance and inspiration to the oldest continuous community mental health program in the Western world. Geel’s history offers a microcosmic view of the challenges that society in general has faced relative to how the community deals with mental illness.
For the individual with mental illness striving to live a meaningful life in the context of the recovery model of treatment, opportunities for community integration serve that model and are critical to its success. Successful recovery for individuals, in turn, allows them greater ability to function as members of their community. Thus, it is logical to encourage a concept of “community recovery” in which communities strive to live with, rather than fear, the realities of mental illness. In the context of this definition, Geel can be viewed as a “recovered community.” (also see Community Recovery in the United States)