Hundreds of families in Geel take in psychiatric patients; people who suffer from schizophrenia, from obsessive compulsive disorder, serious mental illnesses. About half of “the boarders” as they are known, also have what is described as “a mild mental handicap.”
Families in Geel have been looking after mentally ill people for centuries. When the numbers were at their highest in the late 1930s, there were 3,800 psychiatric patients living with families in Geel, a town at the time of only 15,000. A quarter of the town was noticeably mentally ill.
The tradition continues today. A young woman dressed like some sort of ragged angel scurries past on the street; a few minutes later a man with a vacant gaze wanders by muttering to himself. No one bats an eye.
“We are known all over the country as the place where there are insane people.” says tour guide Alex Martens. “There’s also an expression instead of saying you’re crazy. You can say you belong in Geel.”
There really is nowhere on Earth quite like it. Geel has become the gold standard of community care of psychiatric patients, and it’s a model that others are starting to adopt.