Peter Gianfrancesco has worked in mental health for over 40 years. He started his career in nursing and is a registered psychiatric nurse.
Peter undertook his psychiatric nurse training at Gladesville Hospital when he was a young 20 year-old student. He then went on to work at Gladesville Hospital for another four years as a psychiatric nurse and also a recreational support worker.
Peter has very mixed feelings about his time there.
‘I was a very young person. I was probably nowhere near as prepared as I should have been psychologically for the experience there as a young person,” he said.
Peter began his work in the acute wards and this impacted him profoundly. He was then moved to work in the long-stay wards which was very different to the acute setting.
‘Working in the long-stay wards was very different, it allowed me to build friendships. In our modern system we can’t build those relationships in a professional setting. We had a lot of fun sometimes. It’s hard for people to understand but we were a community. We had own little town with a hairdresser, library, watch repair shop for both the staff and consumers. I got lulled into this idea that you don’t need to leave for anything. We had access to a pool, tennis court and dining hall.’
Peter lived on the grounds for four years.
‘We lived our lives alongside the consumers. That proximity created an environment that was very unique and resulted in a lot of good and bad.’ Peter developed very meaningful relationships with some staff and consumers at Gladesville during his time there. ‘I saw a lot of really skilled, caring people trying to do a good job, I saw others that didn’t have the consumer’s interest at heart and saw the way those consumers were impacted negatively. My memories range from helping people to becoming quite institutionalised myself.’
Peter feels the significance of the memorial is very important.
‘It’s a sad story for both consumers and staff, it’s about being forgotten, and about being invisible. And that was the purpose of the hospital to conceal mental illness and treatment, which the system did for a very long time. That is keeping everything quiet and hidden. So, it’s not surprising that it’s an overriding feeling of that place, is of being forgotten.’
Peter also acknowledges that there were consumers who had been at Gladesville Hospital for most of their lives and the transition back to community was not good enough.
‘I don’t think their quality of life improved when they left. Many received ad hoc, patchy care, were unemployed and isolated. Many of the people I know were actually happy there. There was a sense of security, community and safety. You could absolutely argue that those people shouldn’t have been there for that long, but it was cruel to ask people to leave without the right supports after so long.’
Peter thinks there needs to be space to acknowledge that not everyone’s experience was traumatic, not everyone that worked there was abusive or ill-intentioned.
‘There were some remarkable people there, consumers and staff. I remember one man who was a consumer there was a survivor of the Titanic. Some of the longer-serving staff were just amazing in the way they engaged and de-escalated challenging behaviour. Those skills have been lost and those stories should be told too.’