by Isabella Hernandez

Hello, people of North Carolina (and the world)! I am currently living in Reykjavik, Iceland and working/interning at Kleppur, the first psychiatric hospital in Iceland.

Today, Kleppur is used as an in/out patient rehabilitation center, and is part of the University Hospital of Iceland. It is the mental hospital that everyone in Iceland knows by name. The mental hospital with an extreme stigma.

Kleppur: Ward 13

Kleppur: Ward 13

However, it was also one of the first places to do away with extreme violence such as using physical restraints and conducting lobotomies.

The famous doctor from the late 1950s, Dr. Helgi Tomasson, was one of the first from this facility who advocated against these dehumanizing practices. Even now, Kleppur continues to make steps forward in their established rehabilitation process by integrating the RECOVERY method from the UK and US. This method aims to create a tighter bond between patient, family, and staff.

To summarize the project: Creating a help and guidance “base” to give patients the support they need to make their own progress living with mental illness.

Kleppur: Art Room

Kleppur: Art Room

This mental hospital has been busy since the day of its opening in 1907. It is the kind of place that gives off a tinge of eeriness. Especially when one knows just how much tragic history is within its walls. We are talking about the very walls that date back to the time when the mentally ill where tied to posts like dogs.

Yet at the same time, these walls can easily become highly romanticized because of its dark history. The vibes within Kleppur almost seem to echo the philosophers of the 1900s. Perhaps it is just the realization of the darkness of the human mind, and how vulnerable our sense of worth, purpose, and so on, can be. I look at these patients, and I can feel what the authors Kundera or Osamu must have felt when writing their novels. Their characters ooze the exact vibes and words of the people here at Kleppur. Kleppur has been a place that has shown me where that weird concept of despair and nothingness seems to have been born from; its shown me just how easily we all could mentally break as well.

The strange thing about Kleppur is the sense of utter calm that I find there. I am unsettled at times, but it has such a soothing presence as well. The beautiful mountains and ocean views place it in such a picturesque and romantic light. It is almost as awe inspiring a place as it is dismal. The white buildings give off a sense of calmness, the whole place hidden among the white sparkling snow drifts of the perfect Icelandic winter. The red rooftops piercing the whiteness, as sudden and sharp as the winter wind that takes ones breath away.

1000 cranes grants you a wish.

1000 cranes grants you a wish.

As much beauty as I find here, there is also the immense wild danger right beside it; coming in the form of the harsh cold and the taunting ocean waves. The ocean has always been a luring void for the suicidal patients at Kleppur, and has taken countless into its depths in the past. The echoing winds rushing in from the sea seem to call Kleppur’s patients like a lost lover. The grey mountains observing from the faded background, stoic and peaceful…offering no help for the despairing. The whole scene just makes me think of the last few pages of The Awakening.

Kleppur, as well as the temporary care wards at the main University Hospital, have shaken me in ways I never have experienced before. “Why is it that the curtain rods are down?” I once asked. The nurse beside me whispered into my ear, “There was an issue a few hours ago with a patient on this ward. Thank god we caught it in time…you know, we haven’t lost anyone on this ward in a while. We are quite proud of that.”

My friend at Kleppur showing her first crane.

My friend at Kleppur showing her first crane.

Never will I forget the conversations I have had with the patients here, nor their tormented stories. This facility is shrouded in secrecy and mystery. I won’t share much information due to the nature of this work and out of general respect for these patients. But I hope to give you the general idea of my time here at Kleppur. This is a last stop for most, a last hope, and a brand that these people must live with for the rest of their lives, even if they leave fully recovered.

I will never forget these words spoken to me a week or so back. “…lay down prejudices against those with mental illnesses…remember that we are here for them, they aren’t here for us…do things with them and not ‘to’ them” – A PICU Staff member in Iceland.

Kleppur has been the best experience, one that I value beyond any other thus far, especially in regard to my future as a medical professional. The lessons I have learned by working, interning, and volunteering here will be ever important as I continue to dedicate myself to human service.

I am going to quote Plato: I read The Republic before leaving the US, and his words have been ringing in my mind when it comes to the kind of growth I have gained while at Kleppur.

“A little experience may make a man a cynic; a great deal will bring him back to a truer and kindlier view of the mixed nature of himself and his fellow men” -Plato.

From being here I have shed my many worries and fears of working with the mentally ill. They are just like everyone else. Their fears and worries are just exaggerated and not as easy for them to manage. Understanding such things allows for one to easily handle being in an atmosphere like Kleppur’s. I am so very lucky to have been able to have this amazing and eye-opening experience while in Iceland. I feel so much more prepared to go into the medical field in general.

My respect for humanity has grown as well. I use to be such a cynic towards people, but I am amazed and have gained such respect for people and their ability to come out of tough situations. The weaknesses and strengths of the human spirit simply amaze me.

I am heading off once again into the unknown for yet another adventure. By the end of this week, I will be flying away from this amazing winter-wonderland called Iceland. Wish me the best, and hopefully I’ll manage another brief post before arriving in my next destination, Germany.