The misery of Romania’s mentally ill


Patients in some mental institutions are treated no better than animals & Romania is no exception. But what has that got to do with you?

Mentally ill people are often seen as unwanted outsiders in Romania, as they are in many countries. No one wants to have to deal with them, and they’re sometimes referred to as “varsa” (“weeds”). In this country, not even doctors believe a disturbed soul can become healthy again — once crazy, always crazy is a common belief. “Many Romanians don’t think of mentally disabled people as human,” explains Andreia Moraru, Academic Network of European Disability Experts. “They can’t conceive they feel pain like the rest of us. They don’t believe they can improve, even the ones with low- or mid-level disabilities.”.

Less than basic care

Little is published about the state of such patients wellbeing in Romania. It remains a taboo subject for most people. In early 2004, according to Spiegel-Online, it was reported that 17 patients in a hospital in Poiana Mare had died, from hypothermia or undernourishment. When investigated, it was below average for that hospital. More than 80 people had died in there the previous year, from starvation or cold.  “The bureaucrats in Bucharest are well informed about the misery in the country’s mental asylums, but they’re not doing anything about the situation. That’s to do with the state of ethical awareness here,” Schmidt-Michel’s 2004 article says.

No Escape

The mental institutions are worse than the prisons, where inmates with money can get a lawyer, but in psychiatric hospitals, there is no way to appeal.  A slow, lonely, loveless death sentence.

Some patients are not clinically ill. Several Hospital directors have told me personally that as many as 10% have no reason to be there, being placed because they have no family or home, or spouses want to get rid of them to take their possessions/ property, e.g. elderly parents if there’s no room in the home.

Therapy is carried out almost entirely through tranquilizer medication.  Patients might only become ill because of the treatment — anyone taking two tranquilizers a day for years becomes addicted, intentionally diminishing the mental/ physical autonomy. The drugs apparently administered in these mental asylums are mostly the antipsychotic drugs such as haloperidol and levomepromazine, whose long-term use causes movement disorders and damage to the central nervous system.

In my 14 years of visiting orphanages, general state hospitals, care homes & mental hospitals, by far the greatest impact on me has been the care I have witnessed in the latter. The sadness in the eyes, the loneliness, isolation, and desolation of this unfortunate people. But it has been also one of the most wonderful gifts I have received in my time in Romania.

I was fortunate enough to have been raised by a mother who taught me some wonderful values. In my childhood, I never fully understood why she said it was a gift from God that she was able to dedicate all her adult years until her death at 88 to care for my own mentally ill brother. She wrote him a poem which is permanently etched on my mind & it borrows some words from the Bible, (John 14, verse 18 to 23), Part of it reads:

  • I will not leave you comfortless,
  • I will come to you,
  • We will travel this journey together,
  • And fight our life’s battles hand in hand
  • Nothing we encounter will matter,
  • As long as you are by my side…


These words changed my outlook. I first visited the Brasov mental hospital on Christmas day 2008 with 10 sacks of chocolate, fruit etc. My optimism & positive spirit vanished instantly as I saw ward after ward full of almost 200 lifeless, sleeping, stinking bodies knocked out on Christmas afternoon The day everyone outside was celebrating, was one of the saddest scenes in my life, inside this hospital.  Since that day I have visited numerous, every year without fail, taking with me a group of friends each time, who themselves return on other occasions.  I am pleased to say, with each passing year, I see significant improvement.  Sometimes I dress up smartly & arrive in a posh car because I know for some, this ‘importance’ impresses them & in turn, I have witnessed some staff take more pride. What I have learned is that people the world over are the same in this regard.  If they see compassion in someone else’s behavior, they mirror that. So I see it as our human duty to set the example to show that we care because it is infectious.

One thing that a few of us volunteers do, and I welcome readers to join me on future occasions, is to visit some of these hospitals around Bucharest & Brasov, to remind the patients they are not forgotten, there is love for them. The greatest tragedy, in my opinion, is the lack of love, hope & optimism. When you lose these, you lose your soul, along with your mind & without that, what is there in life, really?

These patients are the softest, gentlest people you can imagine, not the dangerous caged animals we perceive. And when you give out hugs, you cannot imagine the multiplied feeling of goodness you get in return You find yourself leaving many times happier than when you arrived.

In one hospital, we bought a patient a guitar & organized regular guitar lessons for him, Now, he is able to spread untold joy to those around him. If you ever feel the urge to join us on a future trip, I wholeheartedly welcome & recommend it. Contact me, I will accompany you with pleasure.

Pictures taken are online images publically available. Other recent ones have blurred out faces to comply with regulations.



  1. Damian, one of the things I loved about you was your compassion. I quickly determined you were raised by a kind a loving mother who showed you how to care for those less fortunate (like your brother Dominic). Your love and compassion spread from your brother to others, and you know how to tactfully educate others on the rewarding opportunities to help those in need! I am hopeful your well written article might fall into the hands of decision makers who can improve the conditions and practices of the institutions housing these patients! You ARE making a difference!! Thank you for everything you do! BTW how is Dominic doing? I gather he is in England? How are you doing?? Please keep in touch! Michelle

  2. Loved reading this mate. Not an ounce of exaggeration. Having been there and seen the situation, I can vouch for that. I’m working again this year and won’t be in Romania for a long time, so I’ll miss coming again this year. I think what you do with your time and money, helping these forgotten souls is amazing mate. It was one of the the most confronting Christmases I’ve ever had, but also one of the most rewarding, the year that I came to the hospital with you. Keep up the amazing work and charity.