Comment

We can de-stigmatise mental ill health if we’re willing to learn from the past

History has so much to tell us about modern medical and social attitudes to mental health

History has so much to tell us about modern medical and social attitudes to mental health

I am an ‘ivory tower’ academic historian who decided to try to reach out and do some good in the world before I retire. One of my fields is history of psychiatry and I launched, at the end of 2016, a five-year project called ‘Promoting mental health through the lessons of history’.

I wanted to provide a balanced and historically reliable account of the development of medical and cultural understandings of mental disorder, against a background of dramatically changing political, scientific, economic, legal, and social environments in the British Isles over the last five centuries.

I hoped to raise awareness of attitudes towards mental health and the care of people with mental disorders, not only among the caring professions, but also the general public, including patients and those close to them. My aim was to inform, de-mystify, and de-stigmatise.

A broader perspective

History is uniquely valuable in broadening our perspectives, because it poses concrete questions, provides comparisons, and alternative solutions, and so helps us arrive at workable solutions to present-day problems.

My project currently has two strands, with more to follow.

I have completed a series of 44 podcasts on the history of psychiatry in the UK and Ireland since the 1500s, and a second series of 25 podcasts, based on historical examples of the experience of people with mental health problems over that period.

I then completed a four-part series on colonial psychiatry in anglophone sub-Saharan Africa, at the invitation of the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine; this and my other podcasts are being used to train local psychiatrists in this low-resource, under-medicalized environment.

Running now, series three comprises interviews with medical professionals and researchers about modern mental health conditions, contexts, and care. The series was launched on 13 March 2018 and includes interviews with a community psychiatric nurse, a GP, and a senior social worker. All these podcasts are available now, for listening or downloading, free of charge.

My project’s second strand is a travelling exhibition about patients in a Victorian lunatic asylum and is called Face to Face. Using case notes and photographs of nine patients, the exhibition examines the circumstances that led to their committal to the asylum, the dilemmas faced by their families, and the nature of their mental illness. All this is set in the context of a bustling industrial and commercial town more than a century ago.

‘Through poignant stories of people who died long ago, the exhibition aims to engage with contemporary concerns about the experience of mental disorders, past and present, the effect on family and community, and wider social attitudes’

Looking at examples from the past is a valuable way to consider the social and cultural contexts that create understandings of mental disorders. Through the poignant stories of people who died long ago, the exhibition aims to engage with contemporary concerns about the experience of mental disorders, past and present, the effect on family and community, and wider social attitudes.

The exhibition is available free of charge to anyone who would like to host it – email me if you are interested. It has already been in workplaces around Scotland and I have recently been invited by Fife College, which provides learning and skills training for all Scottish Prison Service institutions, to mount a version of the exhibition in prisons, and to give talks explaining it and its relevance to modern life, to groups of prisoners. Those talks can also be made available to other audiences, to accompany the exhibition.


 Rab Houston, is a professor in the School of History, University of St Andrews rah@st-andrews.ac.uk


More information

To find out about Professor Houston's projects and hear his podcasts go to: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/psychhist

 

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