Geel, Belgium – Geel, Belgium - Atlas Obscura

Geel, Belgium

Geel, Belgium

Pilgrimage site for the mentally unstable where citizens help their patron Saint Dymphna watch over those not of sound mind. 


Geel, in the center of an agricultural region in Kempenland, is known for its pioneering method of treating psychiatric patients and the mentally ill.

Patients receive treatment at a large hospital in town, but live in the community with host families and are able to take part in everyday life. Originally facilitated by the church and then eventually organized directly between the hospital and residents, Geel was one of the first to adopt deinstitutionalization.

The revolutionary psychiatric system still basically follows the same outline it has since the 13th century—the hospital releases those thought capable of family living to volunteer boarders. While they are given leeway for their impairments, the boarders are expected to follow a certain level of civil conduct, and their odd behavior is ignored whenever possible. They encouraged to bond with the family and especially the children, relationships considered beneficial to all involved. If the boarder’s coping skills degenerate to a point that this arrangement is no longer functional, they are returned to the hospital until they can once more be integrated into family life.

This system, which has been in place for more than 700 years, is derived from the legend of Dymphna, the patron saint of the insane and possessed. Saint Dymphna was a 7th century Irish princess who fled to the Belgian village of Geel to escape an insane and incestuous father hellbent on marrying the girl. When he found her and was spurned once more, he chopped off her head, assuring the doomed child sainthood, a martyr for intercession for the mentally ill, and attracting flocks of outcasts searching for her healing.

This “family care” philosophy has only improved over the centuries as mental health awareness grows and treatment methods develop. In modern Geel, the two-layer system of family care with a medical safety net has led to the town’s ill boarders spending less and less time in the hospital and more and more time living as useful and functional family members.

The idea is that, with more opportunities for community integration and interaction, the patients will be able to live more meaningful lives and enjoy a greater chance of receiving successful treatment. This, in turn, would allow them to function as active and important members of their community.

Despite its success, participants in the system are rapidly declining, due to lack of homes willing or able to board, as well as a sharp decline in those unable to live independently through medication and other advanced treatment. Currently, Geel has roughly 300 “patients” receiving Saint Dymphna’s brand of care, and it’s projected that this may be the last generation in Geel that has the demand to support this ancient and compassionate community’s methods.

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