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Geel - a town with a revolutionary approach to mental healthcare

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Geel - a town with a revolutionary approach to mental healthcare
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It's an issue that is not often talked about and can carry a large amount of stigma. Every 40 seconds, 1 person dies from suicide, a stark reminder on World Health Day that we are failing to address mental health issues.

We went to a small town in Belgium which has pioneered a revolutionary approach to mental healthcare.

We meet Cindy in the town of Geel. She has regained her confidence thanks to her foster family.

For three years, she has being living in a farm-school where she helps out with the animals and riding lessons.

She is taking part in a therapeutic project in which families, without specific training, host patients with mental illnesses or learning disabilities. And for Cindy it is clearly a success.

"For some it works very well because, thanks to this, I am more independent and I have more confidence in myself. Not having marked on the front that I am crazy is very important to me."

Although not mother and daughter, Cindy and her host Nancy are close.

Nancy opened up the doors to her home because she liked the idea of helping and also because she dreamed of having a large family.

And she has managed, she has three children and although she recognizes that living together is not always easy, it works.

"Sometimes it's hard because you have a family and you have to accept a stranger. But once done, it works like a normal family. Cindy is already part of our family," Nancy Van Bael.

The family receives a financial contribution that helps them cover expenses (about 20 euros per day).

And the family can call for help or advice at any time of day or night.

The project is coordinated by the OPZ Psychiatric Care Center in Geel and the treatment includes a good dose of social inclusion.

"One of the benefits of the system is that it deals with stigma. Because of the fact that foster families open their family lifes for people with a mental problem shows to other people that it is ok and shows them that having a mental problem is something that can overcome to everyone," says Wilfriend Bogaerts, psychologist.

Currently, there are 185 patients staying in as many families. All of them concentrated in this small town in northern Belgium.

It has been an important place of pilgrimage for healing mental illness for centuries, and it was one of the earliest models of psychiatric care that allowed patients to live among the community. The earliest infirmary of this type in Geel dates back to the 13th century.

It's a radical approach even today, but one which has won over many people - not least Cindy and her host family.