The Locked Ward by Dennis O'Donnell

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The Locked Ward by Dennis O'Donnell

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A former English teacher spends 7 years on a psyc ward - albeit as a member of staff, not a patient. Interesting and easy to read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224093606

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Dennis O’Donnell spent 7 years working in a Scottish hospital and this is the account of his time there. It takes a special type of person to work in Mental Health services, and though O'Donnell ultimately leaves the Locked Ward, he clearly is one of those people, made all the more remarkable by the fact that this wasn’t his life long vocation, having previously worked as a school teacher (some might say an equally challenging role).

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work on a psyc ward, this book will tell you. I’ve worked in mental health and wandered on and off inpatient wards (though obviously never locked ones like this) and it really is the sort of place that can be hard to describe to those who’ve not seen it, and yet this book managed to do just that. It seamlessly weaves together many areas. We learn about how wards like his are run, what a day to day routine looks like and so on. We hear about the different types of mental illness, how they manifest themselves, how they are treated, and how they can wreak havoc on those they affect, and those who are close to them. We are introduced to a great cross section of patients with their individual idiosyncrasies, triggers and coping mechanisms, and this diversity only serves to reinforce the idea that you should see the patient, not the diagnosis.

It’s funny because if some of the things that occur in the book were the result of a few too many drinks, you’d never think twice, but because of the nature of the patients and what’s driving them to behave in that way, I was a bit wary at times. I needn’t have worried. It’s amusing in the way kooky anecdotes can be but it’s never specifically cruel or exploitive.

The word Memoirs in the subtitle initially made me think these tales were set further in the past, and I’m not the only one – many colleagues seeing me reading it made comments about the era of asylums and so on. In fact, it spans a 7 year period starting in 2000 so is as recent as can be. It’s an account of one ward in one hospital so how common the stories are (and how representative of similar wards) is up for debate. As you’d expect, names have been changed, all identifying details altered to protect the patients concerned. I imagine there is some aspect of fictionalization to it but I also imagine that the stories are based on truth and that the overall vein is an honest one.

I really enjoyed the book as it was easy to read but full of little nuggets of information that answered questions I’d pondered before, things I’d always wondered about. If I’m being picky, I’ll say I wasn’t a massive fan of the Scottish-ness of the writing, but I don’t tend to like thick dialect in books anyway, regardless of origin. Otherwise, though, it’s an interesting read that really does give the inside story on a very unusual place. Recommended.

The Doctor Will See You Now by Max Pemberton gives a similar look at NHS inpatient care, focussing on geriatric medicine rather than psychiatric care.

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Buy The Locked Ward by Dennis O'Donnell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Locked Ward by Dennis O'Donnell at


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