Photo: ”Anna Odell, Rekonstruktion – Psyket, 2024, Still image from Two-channel 4K-video, stereo sound, Courtesy Cecilia Hillström Gallery.”

Since the pandemic, I’ve had plenty of contact with psychiatric services as my child has struggled with unstable mental health. So, I went to a new exhibition by a former psychiatric patient with personal as well as academic interest. Entitled ‘Anna Odell – Rekonstruktion – Psyket’ (in English ‘Anna Odell – Reconstruction – the Psyche’), the exhibition comprises of a film and photographs, both of which feature the artist reflecting on her own experience as a young psychiatric inpatient.

From the age of 16 to 23, Anna Odell, who is now 50, spent time in compulsory care. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was informed that a life outside a mental institution was unlikely. One of her psychiatric nurses instigated a sexual relationship, Odell got pregnant, was moved out of psychiatric hospital and into a flat, where she had the baby. The nurse resigned from his hospital employment.

Fifteen years later, on the Liljeholm bridge in central Stockholm, Odell re-enacted a psychotic suicide attempt, filming it as part of her Art School final examination work. She was detained during the filming, and committed to an acute psychiatric clinic, only to be released the next morning, when she admitted that her psychosis had been faked. The hospital director criticised her inappropriate use of hospital resources and her false alarm attracted a fine of 2,500 crowns.

Odell’s new film revisits her experience by ringing round the staff who had contact with her during her first detention as an inpatient to ask what they remember. Speaking with psychiatrists, therapists, nurses and auxiliaries, Odell films her own face and the viewer hears both sides of the conversation. Odell wants to know what the staff remember of her during her time in hospital, how she was spoken about between the staff and why her pregnancy was not mentioned in her medical notes.

All the staff featured in the film remember Odell and much of the conversation is warmly affectionate, even when discussing difficult issues. Odell is recalled as a small figure with masses of dark hair hiding her face. Some regret is expressed that male psychiatric nurses had been permitted to attend women inpatients. Outright disbelief is expressed, as well as confusion, that Odell’s patient notes did not mention her pregnancy, with only one doctor bluntly stating that the failure to document the pregnancy was a defensive move, to protect fellow staff. At one point a nurse says ‘But I used to allow illegal things to take place too!’ The nurse recalls that she had arranged for Odell to be ridden around Stockholm on the back of another nurse’s motor-bike which was strictly forbidden, but the nurse implies, a taste of freedom that was highly therapeutic.

And when Odell contacts the nurse with whom she had the sexual relationship, he takes a similar line: that the intimacy he achieved with Odell was brave and crucial to her recovery. He implies that his making contact with Odell was a fearless act, which he nobly under took despite the risks to himself.

And Odell agrees: thanks to the intimacy and the subsequent pregnancy, she got a chance at a life that might otherwise have been denied her. She does not regret the relationship and since her self-esteem was so slight as a psychotic teenager, the attention from the nurse was welcome.

The life-saving nature of the sex between a psychiatric nurse and psychotic young patient is a controversial proposition, breaking the ethical norms of professional conduct. At the exhibition vernissage, Odell said that while she uses her own experience, the interest is not in her, but rather in wider issues of power in healthcare.

Watching the film of healthcare staff recalling Odell as a vulnerable ill patient who engaged in sexual relations and escaped the locked ward is compelling, as the details are gradually revealed. Snippets of the various phone calls are skilfully edited together, with the viewer initially unaware of Odell’s own evaluation of the story, despite the continuous close-up of her face which remains inscrutable. Her ability to ask questions and wait out the silence without qualifying or apologising is impressive, with the questions pointed but neither rude nor aggressive.

The film shows Odell to be a woman who survived severe and enduring mental distress and child birth, to subsequently ask cool questions of the professionals involved. This offers hope to individuals with psychosis at the personal level since Odell escaped the psychiatric institution and has made her way as an artist. But the film tells us little about power in mental health services. Waiting times for psychiatric care for young people are unacceptably long and the gap between men and women’s mental health is growing. Odell’s apparent satisfaction with the outcome of her stay in psychiatric hospital does not directly address the question of whether psychiatric care has failed a generation of young women. The ethics of psychiatric care and the wider social responsibility for those who are incarcerated are implicit in this the film, like the ghosts of those inpatients who did not manage to emerge from the asylum.

The film, together with accompanying photographs, are on show at the Uppsala Art Museum until 1st April 2024, with English, as well as Swedish subtitled versions of the film available.

The film was made as part of Anna Odell’s artistic residency with the Centre for Medical Humanities at Uppsala University