Visiting the medication free psychiatric ward in Tromsö


Tromsö has a special place in my heart and mind ever since the very first time my former colleague Teo Keller and I attended a June seminar where we met with hundreds of other people, including Ann-Rita Gjertzén, Michael White, John Shotter, Harlene Andersen, Jaakko Seikkula, Magnus Hald, Lynn Hoffman and the one who made the very special meeting happen, late Tom Andersen.

I am not sure he would have liked to be mentioned as the one who made it happen, and of course it was a collaborative action, but he had a special gift in the sense, to create space for essential meetings to happen, either it took place in a psychiatric ward between just a few persons or during an international meeting.

Tom was in my mind and heart as the aircraft flew into Tromsö last Sunday and from the window I could see the spectacular view of the mountain and the sea as always is there. The purpose for my visit was to meet with staff and those here called patients at the newly opened medication free ward, which has been established thanks to many people´s visions and efforts led by Magnus Hald who is in charge of the clinic.

We are many who have followed the plans to create a medication free ward within the mental health care system in the North of Norway and I was excited and happy to be on my way, and also to meet with Robert Whitaker who would be there to examine how does the ideas and practice look like. Thanks to his relentless searching for facts and evidence regarding psycho pharmaceuticals many people have come to question the existing paradigm which is very focused on medication.

From the very first moment as entering the ward I felt a welcoming atmosphere, an openness and a respectful warmth. The ward is situated right in the middle of the hospital, and few things have been changed regarding how it looks like compared to a traditional ward, and still it is different.

Few things but essential ones, as for example the piano which is placed in the living room. Beautiful flowers, a basket full of colorful balls of yarn, and other small details made me feel at home in a way I usually don´t when visiting a psychiatric ward.

It made me think of Barbro Sandin and Walla where she together with others worked for many years. Walla was the name of the organization but it was also the name of the beautiful home like house where the work took place. Barbro used to say that the environment with its furniture, paintings and flowers is essential especially when life is hard and chaotic inside.

Well, beautiful things are important but as we know more important are the people around us, and so I wish to say something about the people I met. As always it is from a very subjective point of view and as always it will just capture some glimpses, but still…

Merete Astrup who is in charge of the ward seems to be surrounded by people whom like herself mediate warmth, calmness, trust and faith in what is happening and what will happen. This altogether with the respectful way the staff talk about and with those here called patients is as I think a guarantee for the work and shared mission.

By the way, it took me a long time to find out who is the one and who is the other. As for example, I asked one woman what is her profession and she smiled and said “I am a patient”. The tone in every conversation was respectful and as we all know that is of utmost importance when life is at stake. As it also is essential to let people be the way we are, without being met by interpretations and interventions we have not asked about.

This if I may say freedom is an important principle, as I understood it. To not let specific formulas or methods stand in the way, but to try to see each and every one and their needs and strengths. As for example there is no formula how many days the patients may stay at the ward, it might be a few days and it might be months.

There is a structure at the ward which include different activities and conversations, but the one here called patient does not have to participate if she or he does not want to do so. Many different professions are represented at the ward, but it did not seem to be crucial who is the one and who is the other, rather it seemed as if the relationship is in focus and to make use of many different perspectives and experiences.

A challenge since Northern Norway is a big area is to build sustainable networks in different parts of the area and to find people to cooperate with. When talking to Merete and the others it seemed as if they were well aware of this challenge and willing to take it on. I could not help myself from suggesting the staff to find some family homes who are willing to be part of their pioneer work. If something, that is missing so far, as I think.

It made me both hopeful and glad to meet with the people at the ward and to be invited the way we were. Robert Whitaker will write a more detailed article in MadinAmerica so please stay in touch and be connected.

The staff has taken on to a big and important challenge, we are many from all over who hope and wish their work and experiences will be followed by other psychiatric wards in the Nordic countries and elsewhere.

I wish all the people I met the very best, and I keep inside of me some strong and touching moments, in the kitchen, in a sofa and at a meeting that I was blessed to be part of.


Ps, I am sure Tom Andersen would have liked the work and the warmth at the ward.