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‘Women and Mental Illness in Post-War Britain’ Workshop Summary

University of Warwick, 13-14 April 2023.

On 13-14 April 2023, I organised a two-day workshop at the University of Warwick on ‘Women and Mental Illness in Post-War Britain’, with Professor Hilary Marland and the support of our Centre for the History of Medicine Coordinator, Keri Husband. The workshop was kindly supported by the Wellcome Trust, Warwick’s Centre for the History of Medicine and the University of Warwick’s Global Research Priority, Health. The aims of our workshop were to bring together scholars from different career stages, universities, projects and disciplines to exchange ongoing research on women's mental illness in post-war Britain and explore new subject matter, approaches, issues and ethical considerations in the field of women’s mental health history. The workshop focused largely on motherhood and mental illness in connection with our Wellcome-funded project ‘The Last Taboo of Motherhood? Postnatal Mental Disorders in Twentieth Century Britain’. Other interconnected and novel histories were also shared, including research on asylums (Dr Louise Hide) and orthorexia and clean eating in the twenty-first century (Dr Louise Morgan). The papers also addressed the issues of using new kinds of sources and the ethics of working with sensitive materials.

Day One

Panel One: Gender and Mental Health On the first day, after a brief introduction where everyone explained their synergies with the workshop, our first panel explored ‘Gender and Mental Health’. Dr Fred Cooper (University of Exeter) examined women’s mental health through his paper ‘Formidable Discontents: Loneliness, Gender, and Feminism in Post-war Britain’, which focused on the 1950s. Building on the work of Penny Tinkler, Martin Moore and Eleanor Wilkinson, Cooper shared his ongoing research, including experiences of urban and suburban living for housewives. Cooper used an impressive range of visual sources to illustrate the changing tensions and issues regarding privacy, class, companionship and attempts to rectify the decline in neighbourly communities and support networks to resolve loneliness.

Next, Professor Tracey Loughran (University of Essex) spoke about ‘“Ordinary” Unhappiness and Alienation in Women’s Life Stories, c. 1960-1990’. Loughran is the PI of the Wellcome-funded ‘Body, Self and Family: Women's Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain, c. 1960-1990' project, which created an intersectional history of gender, body and the self from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. She highlighted the critical issue of normalising unhappiness and how “ordinary” narratives go unnoticed and remain under-researched as they do not stand out during interviews or in the archive. Loughran suggested that we revisit our sources and subjects, and reflectively put ourselves in the interviewees’ shoes (i.e., how do we use humour and distractions to minimise our own unhappiness in everyday discussions?) to become more conscious and better researchers.

Credit: A woman raising her hands to her face in despair. Watercolour by M. Bishop, 1970. Wellcome Collection.

Panel Two: Student Mental Health in the 1960s.

The second panel explored ‘Student Mental Health in the 1960s’. Dr Sarah Crook (Swansea University) presented a remarkable paper, ‘Contested Spaces: Women Undergraduates and Mental Illness in Post-war Britain’. She illustrated how the medical experts working within some British universities were quick to attribute mental health issues that arose among female undergraduates to their family lives, relationships, and personal issues rather than consider the tertiary environment – or ‘Contested Spaces’ – that they were newly experiencing. Crook, positively concluded, however, that women were highly influential in both shaping and improving universities’ mental health provision from the 1960s onwards. I (University of Warwick) then illustrated in my paper on ‘Mental Health, Marriage, Motherhood and Education, c.1960-1975’ how women had to “drop in and out” of their marriages, childrearing duties, education and work – and in turn prioritised or ignored their mental health issues – to survive a significant culture change in expectations by the early 1960s. Feminist literature, like The Myth of Superwoman (1975), has exposed the challenges of needing to be a ‘perfect’ housewife and ‘the new career woman who could have it all’ by the early 1970s. I argued that these pressures also existed in the previous decades.

Credit: A woman threatened by red clouds and winds. Watercolour by M. Bishop, 1969. Wellcome Collection.

Panel Three: Chronic Illness and Mental Health

The third and final panel of the day focused on ‘Chronic Illness and Mental Health’. Dr Andrew Burchell (University of Warwick) shared his fascinating research undertaken with Professor Mathew Thomson in ‘Narrating Chronicity: Biographical Voices, Gender and Illness from the Mass Observation Project Archive’, focusing on mental health narratives from the Mass Observation Project. This constituted part of the Wellcome-funded Cultural History of the NHS Project. Burchell explained how we could access the narratives in the archive for our own research. He also revealed how they can speak back to their readers, both challenging and disrupting our attempts to find historical patterns in everyday life and health matters. Dr Hannah Elizabeth (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Edinburgh) then shared an extraordinarily moving and vital paper, ‘Recovering Experiences of HIV-affected Pregnancy in Edinburgh’. The paper is part of Elizabeth’s broader Wellcome-funded project, ‘What’s love got to do with it? Building and maintaining HIV-affected families through love, care, and activism in Edinburgh 1981-2016’. In their paper, Elizabeth used memoirs, oral histories, counselling manuals, training material and print press coverage to expose problematic cases and the discrimination associated with HIV diagnosis throughout pregnancy and at birth. They also suggested ways to sensitively re-tell these narratives without stripping people's agency.

Credit: A woman falling headlong into a red abyss. Watercolour by M. Bishop, 1959. Wellcome Collection.

Day Two

Panel Four: Mental Health and Institutions of Help and Harm The opening panel for the second day explored the theme of ‘Mental Health and Institutions of Help and Harm’. Dr Louise Hide's (Birkbeck, University of London) project, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight: Cultures of Harm in Residential Institutions for Long-term Adult Care, Britain 1945-1980s’ is also Wellcome-funded. Hide’s reflective paper considered how asylum patients of the 1960s and 1970s were unethically shown in television documentaries when the medium became popular. In her words, historical research on these sources then ‘objectifying[ly]’ turns the ‘medical gaze to the historian’s gaze without their [the patients] consent’. She explained how this can also be done through the internet and through social media in a world of endless channels of dissemination. Hide then suggested ways to become more responsible researchers and think carefully about how people could unethically use and circulate our own research outputs and ways to avoid it. Panel Five: Confinement, Motherhood and Mental Health

Our fifth panel, ‘Confinement, Motherhood and Mental Health’, started with our project PI Professor Hilary Marland’s (University of Warwick) paper on ‘Motherhood, Guilt and Mental Illness in Post-war Britain’. Marland focused on the setting up of Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) after the 1950s and the involvement of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) in promoting the extension of support and treatment to mothers experiencing postnatal mental illness, highlighting the tensions between the care of the mother and concerns about how the mother’s mental illness might hinder bonding and the infant’s development. Marland's paper also showed how the narratives of NCT mothers reflected upon similar tensions. For her paper on ‘Confined Motherhood in Pandemic-Era Postpartum Psychosis Narratives’, Georgia Poplett (University of Durham) then gave an energised paper on a gothic horror novel The Upstairs House (2021) and film The Babadook (2014). The film is based on a single mother who battles with her son's fear of a monster in the house, but soon discovers the sinister presence around herself. As an interdisciplinary researcher (Creative Writing and Medical Humanities), Poplett addressed the ethics and considerations of using testimonies to write fictional representations of postpartum psychosis. I particularly liked the metaphor of the Babadook confined to the basement, symbolising people’s dormant but ever-present mental health issues.

Credit: An image from the book in "The Babadook," illustrated by Alex Juhasz.

Panel Six: Mental Health in the Twenty-first Century Our final panel ‘Mental Health in the Twenty-first Century’ brought us to present day issues in mental health research. Dr Louise Morgan's (University of Warwick) novel paper, ‘Orthorexia and Clean Eating in Twenty-First Century Britain’, grounded in the broader history of eating disorders, discussed orthorexia's origins and ‘genderless[-ness]’ in relation to clean eating. The term 'orthorexia' was coined in 1998 and refers to an obsession with 'healthy' eating. When considering women’s prevailing obsession with body size and dieting particularly since the post-war period, orthorexia is a topic of monumental significance. Morgan illustrated how social media influencers can reach broader audiences and might hold more authority than medical professionals in ‘clean eating’ debates. And finally, Charli Colegate (University of Sheffield) presented her research on ‘Positionality and Ethical Questions in a Qualitative Study of the Reproductive-related Experiences of Women with a History of Severe Mental Illness’. As a sociologist, Colegate valuably showed us historians how to conduct more fruitful interviews by explaining to interviewees the reason behind our interest in mental health research. By disclosing this information, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is more equal. Like Loughran and Hide, she offered another method of deploying our personal experiences and positionality as researchers in our writing to improve our practice. She also reflected on the motives behind people agreeing to be interviewed. Finally, she addressed the differences in communication based on the different modes of interview, from phone and video calls to in-person interviews.

Credit: A woman dressed in ochre lies prostrate on a purple ground burying her face in her hands. Watercolour by M. Bishop, 1965. Wellcome Collection.

Concluding Roundtable Discussion

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion, which returned to the questions of sources, ethics and care in the context of our historical subjects, interviewees and our own positionality as researchers. Building on Dr Ute Oswald’s (University of Warwick) question on the first day, we discussed the pros (e.g., safety) and cons (e.g., agency-stripping) behind anonymising narratives and returned to the issue of how the expanding opportunities for dissemination, including public engagement, might risk the integrity of our research and the contributions of our historical subjects and interviewees. Dr Jade French (University of Loughborough) noted the abundance of sources we can work with – including more novel social media sources, as Morgan had illustrated in her paper – and the difficult decision-making behind choosing which work best for mental health research. We also spoke about ethical approval procedures at universities, the timing of applications as our projects unfold and develop, and how university processes might focus largely on legal issues. We discussed how to offer better protection for the subjects we are historicising through anonymity, as well as safeguarding our own wellbeing when working on challenging subjects. Hide and another attendee, Dr Jessica Hamett (University of Bristol) also spoke about the Challenging Research Network, and the regular online seminars which provide support and reflective conversations for researchers working in challenging areas. Although the workshop roundtable may have raised more questions than answers, we now have a stronger network of researchers to consider and better resolve issues surrounding mental health research.


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