Beautiful Must Read: For Centuries, A Small Town Has Embraced Strangers With Mental Illness
At the center of Geel, a charming Belgian town less than an hour’s drive from of Antwerp, is a church dedicated to Dymphna, a saint believed to have the power to cure mental disorders. It’s a medieval church with stone arches, spires and a half-built bell tower, and it has inspired an unusual centuries-old practice: For over 700 years, residents of Geel have been accepting people with mental disorders, often very severe mental disorders, into their homes and caring for them.
It isn’t meant to be a treatment or therapy. The people are not called patients, but guests or boarders. They go to Geel and join households to share a life with people who can watch over them. Today, there are about 250 boarders in Geel. One of them is a Flemish man named Luc Ennekans. He’s slim and has green eyes, and he’s 51 years old. NPR’s Lulu Miller went to Geel and met him and his host family there and reported this story for Invisibilia.
Like all of the guests in the town today, Ennekans first went to a public psychiatric hospital in Geel that manages the boarder program. Ennekans saw medical professionals and received treatment and an evaluation. Then he was paired with a household. His hosts, Toni Smit and Arthur Shouten, say that living with Ennekans was rough at the start.
Ennekans became deeply attached to Smit. “If it were up to Luc, he would be hugging and kissing me all day,” Smit says. He showered her with such affection, bringing her flowers, little kisses, linking arms with her on walks, that it began to interfere with Smit and Shouten’s marriage. “You couldn’t even give each other a hug or Luc is standing behind us,” Shouten says. Wrinkles like this are common, according to the couple. They’ve had six boarders over the years, each with a unique set of challenges.
One boarder used to lock Smit and Shouten out of the bathroom to furiously wash his hands, and another used to struggle to sleep because he saw lions coming out of the walls. “He was really dementing,” Smit says. But that doesn’t affect the way they see their boarders. Like many hosts in Geel, they accept that this is simply who their boarders are. It’s not abnormal or something they need to change. “It’s just normal life,” Shouten says.