States of Mind: Conference in Newcastle

Last month, Northumbria University held a conference around the theme of Situating and Interpreting States of Mind: 1700 – 2000. This interdisciplinary conference emerged from a research group, whose work explores how the space, place and historical context in which mental states are experienced has shaped the narratives produced by individuals. The conference was wide-ranging, with papers reflecting on historical themes, literature, art and clinical practice in the field of mental health. The varied perspectives of the key-note speakers indicates the breadth of the approach. Joel Peter Eigen began the event with a lecture on the history of psychiatry, focusing on the dynamics of diagnosis in late Victorian forensic psychiatry. Within this field, the diagnosis of homicidal mania was widely adopted by psychiatrists and prison orderlies alike, but remained nonetheless problematic: a label in which a criminal act was regarded to be the first symptom of illness. Speaking from a broader historical perspective, English Literature scholar Melinda Rabb explored the history of cognition in relation to ideas of size and scale, presenting a fascinating account of the Georgian interest in miniatures, from art to “baby houses” (doll houses). Finally, practice-based Art and Design lecturer Judith Tucker gave a moving account of her artistic exploration of her Jewish grandparents’ holiday snapshots from pre-World War Two Germany.

Between these key-note lectures, speakers from a similarly broad range of disciplines offered wide-ranging perspectives. A particularly affecting talk was given by Nursing Lecturer Tommy Dickinson, giving a voice to former patients who received medical treatment for “sexual deviations.” The paper was based on oral histories obtained from seven former male patients, who had sought treatment for homosexuality or transvestism between 1935 and 1974 in Britain. The disturbing accounts of the electro-shock and chemical aversion therapies carried out had a lasting effect on the participants, who all remained emotionally troubled by experiences many regarded as akin to torture. As Dickinson concluded, the study should act as a reminder to nurses (many of whom carried out the treatments detailed) to ensure that their interventions have a sound evidence base, and to constantly reflect on the influence and intersection of science and societal norms.

Two papers made use of material from the Bethlem Archive. One, by the Museum’s Friends Secretary, expanded on material already available on this blog, on late nineteenth-century patients Walter Abraham Haigh, “Kentish Scribbler” and Henry Francis Harding. Meanwhile, Diana Peschier drew on material from Bethlem and county asylum records to look at religious language in the words of female patients in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women, she claimed, seemed to make far greater use of religious language than men, and the feeling that God had abandoned them or was punishing them for a great sin appeared especially common in female psychiatric patients. This, Peschier felt, reflected the wider experiences of women in this period, for whom religion played in important role in their daily lives and their mental health. Overall, the conference provided an interesting opportunity for reflection on how varied states of mind can be, in health and illness, and across history and culture.

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5 Responses to “States of Mind: Conference in Newcastle”


  1. 1 brettbatten July 12, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    The inclusion of homosexuality in the realm of mental illness has always intrigued me. Should popular thought have an influence on psychiatry?

    • 2 bethlemheritage July 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      An interesting comment, which raises a lot of difficult questions. First off, isn’t it often hard to define exactly where the line between popular thought and psychiatry actually is? After all, what first brings someone to psychiatric attention is often behaviour or experiences that go against widely accepted cultural attitudes (which used to be the case with homosexuality in this country – something that continues in other places). I heard another paper not long ago about the way in which “Female Sexual Dysfunction” was not solely shaped by psychiatrists, but a diagnosis contributed to by ideas circulating in political feminism and women’s magazines (who all claimed that modern, liberated women SHOULD enjoy sex – thus regarding it a problem when they didn’t, which had not necessarily been the case previously). But how much does the identification of a “problem” perpetuate it (causing people anxiety that something might be wrong with them, and other people to judge them in relation to their supposed “problem”)?

      PS I found your blog really interesting.

      • 3 brettbatten July 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm

        Thanks for taking the time to view my blog and for your thought provoking reply. The whole scenario reminds me of a friend I have. This person has OCD tendencies. I have been around individuals with disabling symptoms though I am not a psychiatrist. My friend functions though in a fashion I would find tedious. He doesn’t seem to see or view his behaviours as OCD. Does the fact that I view him as having OCD make him OCD? If I was a psychiatrist would my observations then make him OCD? It’s a little like the tree falling with no one to hear it, does it make a noise? He has little insight into his behaviour, possibly because he has no psychiatrist pointing out his symptoms thus giving him insight. Fifty years ago he would probably only be considered eccentric. Is it a societal problem that there is no such thing as an eccentric person anymore? It seems it has been diagnosed out of the vernacular. In the age of “there’s an app for that” we have “there’s a diagnosis for that” and subsequently “there’s a pill for that.” I would be curious to hear your take on the effect big pharmacy has on diagnosis and treatment of eccentricity.

  2. 4 bethlemheritage July 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Eccentricity: that strikes me as a really interesting topic for further research. I\’m going to have to go to the library tomorrow and see if anything has been written on it from a historical perspective! I\’m a historian myself, and I work on late nineteenth century psychiatry – a period when there\’s an enormous amount of debate over what constitutes insanity and what eccentricity. In addition, there appears to be a lot of public fear over the potential for someone eccentric to be certified as insane (with the difficulty of judging which is which often coming to the fore). You\’re right, we do seem to have lost the idea of eccentricity – perhaps along with a host of other possible ways for someone to be abnormal (or even simply different) without necessarily being diagnosed and treated. Shyness perhaps comes into a similar field: in certain cultures and societies it has been regarded as a positive trait in some individuals, whereas in modern western culture it\’s almost always regarded as problematic (although not necessarily pathological). Once you start seeing things from a psychiatric perspective, sometimes it\’s hard to stop. Conversely, sometimes it can be beneficial for people to start looking at themselves or others from that viewpoint. Deciding where to draw the line has been a topic of much discussion for at least 150 years, if not longer! The marketing of pharmaceutical interventions may well have a part to play, but it strikes me that part of this shift may pre-date this influence.

  3. 5 brettbatten July 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I was driving down a road this morning and noticed a young man talking to himself and gesturing with his hands. It was an intense conversation but made me wonder about eccentricity again. My drive by diagnosis would be that he was suffering from schizophrenia or was in some delusional state. I wondered again if in the past he would have been viewed by passing horse and buggy as eccentric. I also wondered if in another place he would wander the street without a diagnosis. For example in an African village would he be seen as suffering? Psychiatry seems to be specific to time and place to an extent. A broken bone is the same the world over but as you pointed out homosexuality is both normal and abnormal depending on your location.
    I also agree with your observation regarding shyness. When I was in hospital it was pointed out to me that when I wasn’t doing well I self-isolated. I was offended by the observation as I cherish solitude and do not think it is necessarily symptomatic. The individual who pointed it out was respected less than he is now which may have influenced my objection but again time and place are influential in identifying symptoms. I exhibit the same behaviour today but since I am no longer a patient it doesn’t draw attention.
    Please keep me posted if you find anything more on eccentricity. My library is better for finding a movie than anything academic and I am no historian.


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