Deep roots in history

From the thirteenth century onwards, “madman or lunatics” as they were called at the time, came to Geel on pilgrimage at the tomb of Saint Dimpna. Dimpna, according to an ancient legend, was a king’s daughter who was murdered in Geel by her insane father and was buried here with her confessor.

‘Madman’ were sent away everywhere, because of their strange, unpredictable behaviour. Here in Geel, they could stay. Because of the legend and the grave of Saint-Dimpna located here, people of Geel considered it their duty to receive the ‘madmen’ and allow them to spend nine days in penance and prayer in the church. The pilgrims found peace and many stayed. News of Geel as a merciful refuge spread and more and more psychologically afflicted people arrived. The ‘sieckenkamer’ built next to the church soon no longer sufficed to house pilgrims and the citizens took them into their homes. In the first centuries, the church authorities organised lodging of boarders with citizens; in later centuries, it was the city authorities who did so. For centuries, ‘boarding houses’ were passed on from generation to generation. Thus, organically, without grand theories or plans, foster family care emerged as care by the community.

From 1851, professional support was built out, including the construction of a central hospital, the employement of psychiatrists and care staff and the provision of all kinds of support initiatives. Since 1991, Geel Foster Family Care has been part of the OPZ Geel, a psychiatric care center of the Flemish government.
In 2001, in a report on mental health care, the World Health Organisation WHO described Geel foster family care as a “best practice” and an excellent alternative to “institutional psychiatry”.