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An annual reggae festival takes place by the town center of Geel, Belgium, and Janssen Pharmaceutica has a factory here.  Orchids grow in the fertile soil and three windmills churn in the wind.  Though Janssen manufactures Risperdal™, Invega™, and Concerta™ for mental illnesses, in this town, charity is the overriding treatment.

Hundreds of families in this town of 38,000 people take in psychiatric patients as “boarders.”  In the 1930s when the population numbered 15,000, “a quarter of the town was noticeably mentally ill,” says Karin Wells of CBC News.¹ Three thousand eight hundred boarders.  Hard to imagine?  One current resident points out the normalcy of the arrangement:  “No one really notices them.  Not in a negative way.”

NIMBY? No Way

One fifth of the boarders have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and many have bipolar disorder.  If a person wants to become a boarder, he or she must first move to an observation house staffed by a local psychiatric hospital which then places the person in the home of a Geel resident.  No one with violent tendencies is placed in a home.  If the match does not work well for the resident, the patient is placed in another home. The Not-In-My-Back-Yard mentality does not exist here.

Resident Toni Smit remembers a boarder with OCD who spent 1 1/2 to 2 hours scrubbing himself with bleach every time he used the bathroom.  She found his habits too difficult to live with but she has two boarders now, one who also has OCD.  “They are part of the family – we love them,” she says.

Chosen by God

Geel’s history of caring for people with symptoms of mental illness began centuries ago after a religious shrine was erected in honor of St. Dymphna.  The people of Geel, says Frieda van Ravensteyn, curator of the Dymphna museum, “thought they were chosen by God to help people with mental illness.”  When the church could not contain the number of people who traveled to Geel for help, local families began to open their doors.  The hospital has records on almost 50,000 boarders who received the community’s care.

Residents don’t need special training nor do they know what diagnosis their boarders have.  A treatment team from the hospital drops in unannounced every few weeks and leaves any necessary medication for the family to dispense.  The hospital also provides an assortment of therapies—cooking, sports, music, work, and blossom therapy (otherwise known as gardening)—and takes the boarders on vacation.

And If We’re Not Chosen

Geel’s foster program has been implemented in Montreal, Germany, Italy, and Japan.  Journalists from Milwaukee visited recently, according to Johann Claeys, hospital spokesman. Their main concern was the issue of violence.  “In ten years,” said Claeys, “they had three interventions and it had nothing to do with violence, not at all.”

In the article written by Karin Wells, none of the residents interviewed spoke of having a calling from God.  The foster families receive a stipend along with hospital support and oversight.  There are no therapeutic goals to reach, just sharing life as a member of a family.

“They’re just people,” said Toni Smit.  “They need caring for too.”

¹ “Psychiatric Community Care:  Belgian Town Sets Gold Standard,” by Karin Wells, CBC News, March 9, 2014.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/psychiatric-community-care-belgian-town-sets-gold-standard-1.2557698     This link also provides an audio documentary.

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