Book review

MadnessStories of Uncertainty and HopeSean BaumannJonathan BallReview: Roshiela Moonsamy

Dr Sean Baumann worked for 25 years as a consultant to the male acute service at Valkenberg Hospital.

In this book, he delves deeply into multiple aspects of mental illness, starting with the use of the word madness and the related stigma attached to it.

Dr Baumann highlights the harm and suffering caused by misconceptions, misrepresentations and fallacies about mental illness.

He has dedicated the book to his patients and their families, and writes with great empathy about some extremely sad and painful stories that came before him.

Dr Baumann also raises the role of cultural beliefs and traditional healers – such as how someone suffering from schizophrenia may be thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. He hopes there can be a more constructive relationship between Western doctors and traditional healers who get consulted by many patients first.

He also tackles misrepresentations in movies and theatre. In an attempt to “create something that was authentic and respectful” he wrote a short opera titled Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair, which was performed at the Baxter theatre in 2017.

Other aspects discussed in the 41 chapters include substance abuse, suicide and how we romanticise the association between madness and creativity.

In the chapter “Anxiety, psychiatry in disarray and a celebrity circus”, Dr Baumann writes about the Anni Dewani murder case.

After Anni’s husband Shrien is extradited from England to appear before our courts in connection with the murder, he ends up being a patient of Dr Baumann on the grounds that he is suffering from mental illness.

Dr Baumann summarises the report he submitted to the court but writes in the book that he feels,”…that the profession of psychiatry had wrongfully been involved and that the confusion of psychiatric diagnoses had complicated this tragic course of events,” which saw Shrien Dewani being let off the hook and sent home.

This book is a must for anyone wanting to learn about the many underlying aspects of mental illness in the uniquely South African context told by someone on the frontline.

It goes a long way in raising awareness of how we think of mental illness, from the words we use to describe it, to how we see others who are struggling with it and even how we understand ourselves as human beings.

Dr Baumann concludes the book on a note on the need for hope amid all the despair.

I hope it will remain widely available for years to come and that there are copies in our libraries.

The beautiful and sometimes haunting images at the start of each chapter are by Fiona Moodie.

● We received 112 entries in last week’s competition for the book I Survived. The lucky winner was Dorothy Jaftha of Table View.