Thoughts on the conference themes

A post from one of the conference convenors, Stef Eastoe:

“I wanted to discuss some of the motivations behind the conference, and to expand more broadly on some of its themes. This was not an easy blog post to write, as there are so many points to make, and so many assumptions about what the conference should be, the form it should take, who the participants should be, and who it is aimed at. These were also questions that we as the organising committee asked ourselves repeatedly when coming up with the theme, title, and call for papers; we did not want to ignore, privilege, or deny any group, or any perspective.

Firstly, for a scholar whose focus is primarily the nineteenth century, researching the social history of idiocy, I wanted a space to hear, discuss and explore both the voices and experiences of those on the periphery of psychiatry, and of history. I want, and need, a place where I could listen to other accounts and link them to the voices, experiences, and narratives, that I find in my research. I also felt that it was important to provide a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment, and opportunity for postgraduate and early career researchers to discuss and exchange ideas and questions arising from the conference theme, such as issues surrounding validity and usefulness, and the very notion of narrative, experience and voice. Finally, it was also important for me to acknowledge the wide range of actors, spaces, and environments that are directly and indirectly part of psychiatry.

In my research I often find myself asking the same questions both of my sources, of the wider literature on the subject of the ‘history of psychiatry’, and of the discipline itself. What is psychiatry? What is a psychiatric space? What constitutes a psychiatric environment? What groups and activities are making and populating the psychiatric landscape? How do these allow us to encounter, retrieve and access narratives?

Throughout my academic journey, I have had a number of encounters with psychiatry in a professional and personal context. I have read, listened to, analysed, discussed, critiqued and been told numerous versions, approaches and interpretations of ‘psychiatry’, by scholars from across the humanities and life sciences. Yet, for all the claims of social history, cultural history, inter- and multi-disciplinarity,  I often found that I was hearing the same narrative again and again, just dressed up in different guises: great (white) (male) doctors and their great ideas and deeds. I kept thinking, what about the patients? What about the nurses? What about the family? What about the community? Where are they, who are they, what did they do, what did they feel, what did they say, and how did they say it?

In the first year of my PhD, when I did encounter the narrative, voice, or experience of these ‘minority’ groups, I was often at a loss as to how to deal with it, partly for fear of being accused of being a bad scholar, and partly for fear of misrepresentation. I struggled to find much in the way of assistance in the historical literature on the subject, with little insight, methodology, or theory to help me use, analyse and understand these accounts.

These were voices that I did not wish to ignore, not least because they were the voices of family members of asylum patients discussing how they understood and dealt with ‘mental deficiency’ outside of the asylum. I also did not want to ignore these accounts as I myself am a parent of a child who has a condition which requires the services of psychiatrists, and I wanted to include as many experiences and voices as possible in my research. To use a cliché, they are all part of the rich tapestry that is psychiatry.

Whilst it cannot be denied that in recent years there have been a number of attempts to unearth voices, experiences and narratives of other actors making up the ‘psychiatric landscape’, primarily patients, but also family members, nurses, campaigners and advocates, these are few and far between in the broader history. They remain very much at the periphery in the history of psychiatry, and history more broadly. Quite often the sources from which these accounts are drawn are perceived as less credible, and preference is given to ‘official documents’, such as casebooks, medical records, and reports which focus on the medical professional’s voice, leaving very little room for others. 

The conference theme, for me, grew out of the frustrations of constantly being told not only the same story over and over, but the lack of vibrancy, ingenuity, and interaction in the field with other groups, and forms of experience, that have been involved in various formal and informal ways in the creation, evolution, development and shaping of psychiatry, inside and outside of the institution.

However, for all the dismay and frustration, the conference also grew out of a place of hope. There is a feeling of a sea-change within the academy, and outside it. Conferences such as Beyond Belief and Making Sense of Madness have provided forums for service users, practitioners, and humanities scholars to discuss ‘psychiatry’ in a number of contexts and topics, from language and terminology to treatments and institutions. There were also a number of conferences, workshops and discussions last year following the publication of the DSM-5, including Dr Felicity Callard arguing against the house at the Maudsley Debates on the theme of Enabling or Labelling. It is this wave of change, of challenge, of hope and of openness which the conference wishes to build on, expanding and drawing out new threads of debate, highlighting and establishing new avenues of research, and generating new (supportive) networks.

There have been concerns that this conference is ‘another conference about us, but not including us’ by service users and psychiatric survivors. As an initial reply to this important point, it should be noted that Alternative Psychiatric Narratives is a history conference, convened by history PhD students. We want to provide an opportunity to explore the broad and varied actors, voices, experiences, and narratives that have made up the equally broad psychiatric landscape over time, from the early modern era to the present day.  The main aim is to provide an inclusive, supportive, stimulating forum to discuss what can be sensitive subjects, not to replicate the excellent work that is already underway within service user or practitioner-led groups.

We do not wish to privilege, deny, or ignore any voice, perspective, experience or view of psychiatry. This is reflected in the selection of invited speakers, who we feel can provide a broad spectrum of insight and analysis, and can introduce some of these alternative psychiatric narratives to us all.”

Stef is on Twitter @StefEastoe

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