Saint Dymphna, the Patron Saint of Mental Health
According to the booklet prepared for the Gasthuismuseum Geel, Dymphna was born in the 6th century in Ireland. Her father, King of Oriel, was still a pagan despite the fact that Ireland was almost universally Catholic. Her mother was a noble Christian and was known for her remarkable beauty. Dymphna took after her mother in beauty and grace and was considered the “jewel” of her home. She was favored all around her kingdom and supposedly even by the Heavens. When Dymphna was born, her mother died. Though she was extremely saddened by this loss, she found great comfort in her mother’s faith. Her father was also extremely affected by the loss of his beautiful wife. He was persuaded by his counsellors to marry again and the king agreed, sending out people of his court to find a woman whose beauty matched his deceased wife. It then dawned on the king; he should marry his daughter who was the spitting image of his wife. Dymphna was obviously terrified by this idea and asked if she could have forty days to think about his proposal.
Dymphna ran to Father Gerebran, who suggested that she run from her home immediately. This is when Dymphna finds herself in Geel, Belgium. While Dymphna was in Geel, she built a small hospital to care for the poor and sick. Sadly, by using her wealth to help those in need, Dymphna was found by her father’s men. The king demanded that Father Gerebran be put to death after he confronted the king and declared it would be best if Dymphna stayed in Geel. The king asked her and tried persuading her to come back to Ireland. Dymphna continued to decline his offer and threats. Still in a dangerous rage, the king cut off her head.
Records have said that the priest and Dymphna’s bodies laid on the ground of the village for some time after their deaths until the villagers of Geel moved them into a cave. After several years, the villagers remembered their holy deaths and decided to have a proper burial for them. When the workmen removed the boulder covering the cave, they had found that there were two, beautiful white tombs that were carved from stone that seemed as if angels had carved them. When the workmen opened the tomb, there was a red tile labeled “Dymphna." The villagers thought the tile was placed there to protect Dymphna after death. In honor of her, they built the Church of St. Dymphna, which is located where their bodies were first discovered.
In 1480, Geel built a hospital close to the church to accommodate the pilgrims and to care for the poor and sick. This small hospice building became so popular that a lot of families would leave their sick family members there. Currently, Geel still provides shelter for those who are mentally ill. The hospital is still open, and Geel has been helping those in need for over 700 years. The homes that take in the guests are not meant to be seen as a treatment or therapy: “‘To them, treating the insane, meant to simply live with them, share their work, their distractions,’ Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote in 1845” (Chen). Because of this, these people are not considered patients, but called guests or boarders. The importance of mental health truly resides in Geel. Most of those who live in Geel, or those who are taken in, say that all their troubles seem to just disappear. In the 19th century, some issues began to arise. This century is when mental asylums became popular and were considered to be places with high advanced scientific methods. Geel was seen as leaving those in need of mental help without treatment and therapy and were given no chance to recover.
I believe that Geel developed a smart way of approaching those who have a mental illness. In the U.S., we seem to almost shame those who are diagnosed with depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc., instead of treating them like regular people. Those who have mental illnesses are treated like their disability isn’t important because it is not physical. The idea that the members of Geel simply just live with those who are diagnosed with mental health issues seems very smart. Being treated like an equal and not getting glared at, or considered "crazy," can really improve someone’s mental health by making them feel accepted for who they are. I believe that trying to understand and even get involved with someone’s way of living can give someone who does not have a mental illness a good perspective of how and why they act the way they do. A lot of people could learn from those who live in Geel. Instead of shunning away those who have mental illnesses, take them in and show them kindness. Embrace instead of oppress.
“Dymphna - Saints & Angels.” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=222.