Promoting Mental Health through the Lessons of History

Mental illness is the world’s fastest growing diagnosis. Yet awareness remains patchy, stigma prevalent, and opportunities to promote well-being often missed.

Historical examples are uniquely valuable in communicating the wide variety of social and cultural contexts that create understandings of mental disorders; in different ways, history mirrors the UK’s multicultural and socially stratified present.

Using historical materials and examples, ‘Promoting Mental Health through the Lessons of History’ aims to engage with contemporary concerns among diverse audiences about the experience of mental disorders, the effect of mental illness on family and community, and the possibilities for care and cure.

Two strands of the project are already underway. The ‘History of Psychiatry in Britain since 1500’ podcast series now comprises three main series and one mini-series (on colonial psychiatry in Africa), with a fourth one currently being planned. All 70+ episodes are free to download. An exhibition exploring the lives of patients admitted to a Scottish lunatic asylum at the turn of the twentieth century is on display at the University of Dundee from March until June 2018. Further ideas are currently in development, including working with the education of prisoners in Scottish jails.

The multi-stranded approach of the project will allow it to reach a wide variety of people and many communities. It will be of interest and benefit to almost anyone with a stake in mental health: sufferers from mental illness, their families, healthcare professionals, advocacy and support groups, and the general public. The project involves academics and non-academics, generates insights, explores innovation, and shares learning. Suitably adapted, many of the methods could ultimately be used as educational tools, and may be especially beneficial in low-resource environments. The podcasts are already being used to train local psychiatrists in Malawi, a part of the world which has very few.

Ultimately, our goal is to achieve better health outcomes; to enhance awareness of mental health, promote early diagnosis, destigmatize suffering, strengthen resilience, and promote recovery.

For further information about the ‘Promoting Mental Health through the Lessons of History’, please contact Prof Rab Houston at the University of St Andrews.