On trial for faking madness ? as part of an artwork

Author: By Stina Backer in Stockholm

Anna Odell, a 35-year-old graduate at the city’s prestigious Konstfack art
academy, staged the psychosis earlier this year for a film aimed at creating
a debate about Swedish psychiatric care.

But her actions outraged the public and led to a media frenzy. She has been
accused of wasting taxpayers’ money and of endangering those who are
genuinely ill by wasting the time of the emergency services.

In May, the day after the opening of her film, entitled in Swedish Unknown
woman: 2009-349701, she was charged with fraudulent practice, raising a
false alarm and resisting arrest. If she is convicted she will be forced to
pay back the cost of the care she received, estimated at the equivalent of
£1,000, and would face a two-year suspended sentence and additional fines.

When the story broke, few people knew that Odell’s “psychosis” was
in fact a carefully staged reconstruction of an actual event in her life, 14
years previously. On that occasion, after several years battling anorexia
and mental health problems, she “lost it”, she said, and climbed
the railings of the Liljeholm bridge in central Stockholm to end her life.
She was discovered by the police, handcuffed and taken to St Görans, the
largest psychiatric hospital in Sweden. At the hospital she was immediately
placed in restraints and repeatedly sedated ? something which she has not
been able to forget.

It was her experience of the “unnecessarily rough treatment of
psychiatric patients” and the “continued victimisation and
stigmatisation of patients with mental health issues by the health services”
that inspired her “reconstruction” on 21 January this year. She
first consulted a lawyer who advised her ? wrongly as it turned out ? that
she would face no charges if she went ahead with the staged breakdown.

Odell’s art academy tutors also gave their blessing to the project, although
several board members at the school subsequently joined the public
condemnation. The initial furore about whether Odell was right to fake her
psychosis has broadened out into a debate about the value of art to society.
Odell says she has no regrets, as “people have at least started to
discuss the state of our mental healthcare in Sweden”.

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