The Lentegeur Spring Project
Mandela Day in 2013 saw an unusual gathering at Lentegeur Hospital, organised as part of its Spring Project, when the South African National Biodiversity Institute supported staff and patients at the hospital in planting over 1000 indigenous plants to beautify the hospitals entrance area. We spent some time talking about Madiba’s legacy and what we were trying to do but I had no idea of the impact of this activity on those involved until right at the end of the event, when, as we gathered for a group photograph, the man standing next to me, someone who had spent most of his life as a patient at the hospital, turned to me with a huge grin on his face and said:
“I have never felt so important in my whole life!”
Lentegeur Hospital is one of three major psychiatric hospitals in the Western Cape, serving as a referral center for one third of the Province’s population. With a total of 788 beds in two sections: Psychiatry, and Intellectual Disability, the hospital admits and successfully discharges 100-200 individuals, from all sectors of the population every month.
Originally commissioned in 1984, for psychiatric patients classified as “Coloured” under apartheid, the hospital occupies a large site in the impoverished suburb of Lentegeur. To the public eye, it resembles many similar institutions from a bygone era, with anonymous buildings, in empty grounds, surrounded by high and forbidding fences.
The large psychiatric institutions (of which Lentegeur is a typical example) have an interesting, if rather dark history, that can tell us a lot about how mental illness is commonly viewed in society today. Unlike most medical disciplines, where hospitals developed as the discipline grew, sadly, in psychiatry, it seems to have happened the other way around. The discipline of psychiatry arose from within the institution, which had already been established with the primary purpose of removing certain individuals, who had been labeled as “undesirable”, from society. Until at least 1700, these institutions were relatively few in number and sparsely populated. That year The Bethlehem Royal Infirmary was the only state institution in the United Kingdom and housed less than 100 ‘inmates’ but by 1900 there were more than 100 000 people in institutions in the UK. The philosopher Michel Foucault argues powerfully that the growth of the institutions was a product of the European Enlightenment (also known as the “age of reason”) and its obsession with rationality and the individual subject. In Foucault’s view, the society of this new culture had no place for the “irrational” subject, who was now also viewed in isolation and hence was identified as an alien and removed into the rapidly expanding asylums. It was only later that the idea of helping such individuals arose and we still battle with the negative connotations of this history – mental illness is seen as “unacceptable” and those who suffer are made to feel that they no longer belong.
So, in its current form Lentegeur Hospital carries very powerful negative symbolism associated, not only with the treatment of mental illness but also with oppression, poverty and a loss of identity. Such perceptions are of little help in dealing with the huge challenges that hospitals like this are facing.
Mental illness is increasingly being recognized as one of the leading causes of global burden of disease and the communities served by the hospital, particularly those in the areas surrounding it, are characterised by high levels of poverty, drug abuse, criminality and social fragmentation all of which drive mental ill-health.. Although climate change may not be a major concern within these communities, it is clear that its consequences, and particularly that of food-price inflation, will affect them most directly and may already be doing so. A truly frightening statistic from a study carried out in 2008 showed that at least 70% of households in Brown’s Farm, Phillipi and 89% of households in Kuyasa, Khayelitsha were moderately or severely food insecure.
But does it have to be this way? Ideally hospitals should be about refuge, recovery and the restoration of hope and mental hospitals should be at the very heart of the community, leading the way towards a bright and healthy future, where there is a place for everyone!
In the name Lentegeur, there lies a beautiful image of all that this hospital could be. Translated, it means: “the aroma or essence of spring” and spring is all about getting in touch with our roots as we reach towards the sun! The Lentegeur Spring Project is an attempt to re-establish the hospital as a “Green” hospital, and, even more importantly, as a symbol of hope, reconnection and regeneration. This will take place by using green initiatives for the rehabilitation of those with mental illness and the upliftment of their communities, and to establish the hospital as a leader in mental health, with a particular focus on community and the environment.
The project consists of a number of different but synergistic initiatives:
- Image building and marketing
- The establishment of food gardens and other pro-environmental, self-employment projects for in-patients and out-patients.
- The establishment of aesthetic gardens within the hospital as the physical embodiment of a place of regeneration, hope and healing.
- A Green Hospital Project with the minimization of water and carbon footprints.
- An annual Lentegeur Spring Cultural and Environmental Festival for further community participation.
This unique and highly visible project hopes, not only to transform the way that the hospital and mental illness are seen by the communities it serves, but also to provide a stimulus for the regeneration of these communities with the restoration pride and identity through a sense of attachment to land, community and the environment. The project has been adopted as a flagship of the Provincial Health Department of the Western Cape, it is part of the Western Cape Premier’s 110% Green Campaign and it has been accepted as part of the program of World Design Capital 2014.