Talking to ourselves?

Following on from the Alternative Psychiatric Narratives conference in May, we are pleased to announce a roundtable to discuss what historians can contribute to current mental health debates, followed by the launch of a book by one of our speakers, Louise Hide.

From the early 19th century, poverty, social isolation, stress and aging have been powerful social forces that contributed to mental breakdown and the mass confinement of people in institutions such as asylums and prisons. Over two centuries, stigma has been pervasive, service funding inadequate, and different human behaviours pathologised.

All are invited to this event on 23 September 2014 to discuss how academics, service users and clinicians can share their experiences and knowledge to bring new perspectives to our understanding of mental health issues, past and present.

Round-table speakers:
Hilary Marland (Professor of History, Warwick),
Rhodri Hayward (Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary, University of London),
Diana Rose (Professor of User-Led Research, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s)
+1 TBC

This will be followed by a drinks reception to celebrate the launch of:

Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914
Louise Hide

Gender and Class in English Asylums book cover

Date: 23 September 2014
Round-table discussion: 5.30- 6.45pm
Drinks reception: 6.45 – 9pm
Venue: The Keynes Library, School of Arts, Birkbeck, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD
Free to attend, but please register in advance at:

Final call for registration…

A few cancellations means that there are now some more spaces available!

If you’d like to register for the conference, please click here to go to our Eventbrite page.

You can also have a look at the programme and find out about some of the speakers. The conference begins at 12.30 on Friday 16th May and closes at 5.30pm on Saturday 17th, and all delegates are welcome to join us on Friday evening for an informal drinks reception.

And, for any queries at all, drop us a line at

We look forward to meeting many of you on Friday!

Less than 3 weeks to go!

There have been one or two changes to the programme, which is available online along with the abstracts of all the talks taking place at the conference. We are very excited about these marvellous papers and look foward to welcoming all our speakers and delegates in a few weeks’ time.

In bad news for anyone who has not yet registered, we are currently full up! However, if you’d like to come please do either join the waiting list via Eventbrite or contact the organisers on and we will let you know if any further spaces become available. (And if you have booked but can no longer attend, please do let us know!)

We have heard that a number of nearby hotels are also already fully booked, so we’ve included some new suggestions on the registration page.

As always, for any questions or problems, do get in touch.

Registration now open!

We’re very pleased to be able to share the programme for this conference at last. We were innundated with proposals and extremely impressed by the high standard, so we thank everyone who has been in touch so far for their interest and enthusiasm.

Registration is now open via Eventbrite, and thanks to the very generous support of the Wellcome Trust, the Birkbeck Graduate Research School, and the Society for the Social History of Medicine, there is no charge for attendance.

We look forward to welcoming many of you to Senate House in May!

Another exciting announcement

As the final hours for paper proposals slip by, we are delighted to announce a further invited speaker, Dr Diana Rose of the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley. Dr Rose is a senior lecturer in user-led research, co-director of the Service User Research Enterprise at King’s College London, and mental health service user. She has published widely on the subject of the service user’s perspective and ’voice’ in research, and we very much look forward to welcoming her and all our speakers in just over two months’ time!

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

Introducing our speakers

We feel very privileged and excited to have some amazing keynote and roundtable speakers participating in Alternative Psychiatric Narratives:

Mathew Thomson is a Reader in History at the University of Warwick, and author of Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement (2013), Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (2006) and The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain, 1870-1959 (1998). He is also the Acting Director for the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick.

Barbara Taylor, a professor at QMUL Schools of History, and English & Drama, has published on a wide range of topics, from feminist theory and history to enlightenment studies. She is the chair of the long-running Institute of Historical Research seminar series on ‘Psychoanalysis and History’. Most recently, Professor Taylor has been working on her book The Last Asylum: A memoir of madness in our time, a personal history of the mental health care in the late twentieth century, set against the wider story of the end of the UK asylum system. You can read more about it on a Wellcome Trust blog here.

Jacqui Dillon, national Chair of the Hearing Voices Network in England and a key figure in the Hearing Voices Movement internationally, is a writer, campaigner, international speaker and trainer. She has personal and professional experience, awareness and skills in working with trauma and abuse, dissociation, ‘psychosis’, hearing voices, healing and recovery. Jacqui has written numerous articles and co-authored several books, including Living with Voices, an anthology of 50 voice hearers’ stories of recovery, and Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Psychosis. She is on Twitter @JacquiDillon

Simon Cross is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of Mediating Madness: Mental Distress and Cultural Representation. (2010), and researches  the media and areas of sensitive public policy as well as representations of mental distress.

We’re delighted that Mathew, Barbara, Jacqui and Simon have all agreed to participate in our conference and share their ideas, their research and their experiences. Don’t forget that if you’d like to join them, our call for postgraduate and early career research paper proposals is open until 3 March!

“After the Asylums”

Readers may be interested in the launch of The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor (Penguin, 2014), on 18 March 2014. This event will involve a public discussion of mental health care in Britain, past and present.


Speakers will include:

Peter Barham, a psychologist and a social historian of mental health. His books include Schizophrenia and Human Value (1995), Closing the Asylum (1997) and Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (2004).  He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Peter Campbell, a mental health system survivor. He has been receiving mental health services for 45 years. He was a founder member of Survivors Speak Out (1986) and Survivors’ Poetry (1991). Since 1990 he has worked as a freelance trainer in the mental health field and has made many written contributions to books, journals and magazines. He has Honorary Doctorates in Education at Anglia Ruskin University and The Open University.

Annette de la Cour, a mental health social worker and family therapist who worked in London mental health services for over two decades, including in the first community crisis intervention service based at Napsbury Hospital. She was a Mental Health Act Commissioner for many years and is currently an Associate Hospital Manager for her local mental health Trust.

Antony Garelick, who trained at the Maudsley Hospital and is a Consultant Psychiatrist/Psychotherapist who worked for 25 years at Claybury Hospital in Essex, one of the largest therapeutic communities in the UK. He was the first Clinical Director at Claybury, and was heavily involved in its eventual closure and the reprovision of its services. He is now an Associate Dean of MedNet (London Deanery), a consultation service for doctors based at the Tavistock Clinic in London.

Barbara Taylor, Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary UL and author of The Last Asylum (2014). Her previous books include Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (2003), On Kindness (co-written with Adam Phillips, 2009), and History & Psyche (co-edited with Sally Alexander, 2012).

6.30-8pm at Queen Mary, University of London, Maths Lecture Theatre, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS. This event is free of charge and open to all. No tickets or booking required. For further information, email