About the podcast series

The History of Psychiatry in Britain since 1500 currently consists of two podcast series, with a third series in production.  The first series looks at the history of psychiatry in Britain and Ireland from all angles and covering multiple constituencies – not just about medicine and the development of the psychiatric profession, but also looking at how families, communities, and societies perceived and tried to help those with mental disorders against a backdrop of profoundly changing economic, social, intellectual, scientific, and political life. Series Two focuses on the experience of sufferers and those close to them, giving voice to the ordinary people of the past who knew they were mad, or who others thought insane. It uses extracts from things they wrote or which were written about them, to explore what it was like to be mentally disordered or to cope with someone who seemed that way.

Series One – The History of Psychiatry

The first series of 44 podcasts covers England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland over the last 500 years, looking at continuities and changes in how mental illness was understood and treated, and at the radical shifts in systems of caring for those who were either mad or mentally handicapped during the last two centuries. The coverage is broad, ranging from how mental problems were identified and described in the past through changing ideas about their causes and developing therapeutic practices to important themes such as the reasons behind the emergence of psychiatry as a profession and the rise and fall of asylums as a location of care. The series explores the history of suicide, madness in the media, psychiatry and the law, relations between medical practitioners and patients, and it assessing evidence that the incidence of mental illness has changed over time. It begins and ends with discussion of the value of history and the vital lessons that can be learned by studying the past.

Listen to Series One

Series Two – The Voice of the Mad

The second series of podcasts began broadcasting in June 2017. This series comprises 25 podcasts. It uses extracts from the autograph writings of those with mental problems or their reported speech between the 17th and 20th century, to explore a range of mental disorders ranging from autism and depression to schizophrenia and obsessive stalking. Seen through original historical manuscripts and printed sources, the series documents individual, family, and social crises related to mental disorders, including suicide, crimes of violence, protection of vulnerable adults, religious mania, and admission to lunatic asylums and the experience of living in them. It aims:

  • To provide a balanced and historically reliable account of how sufferers from a wide range of mental disorders and handicaps experienced their afflictions, by using their own writings or those of others who quoted them.
  • To balance the usual bias in the history of psychiatry towards medical practitioners, by focusing on patients and their families and friends.
  • To raise awareness of attitudes towards mental health and the experience of those suffering from mental disorders or disabilities among the general public, by using historic examples.
  • To bring to the fore the significance of a knowledge of history to present day understandings of mental problems and ways of dealing with them.

Listen to Series Two

Mini series on colonial psychiatry.

This short series was prepared for the Scotland Malawi Mental Health Project to act as a component of the training programme for psychiatrists at the College of Medicine in Malawi. Like much of the less developed world, Malawi has limited resources for specialist psychiatric care: the ratio of psychiatrists per head of population is less than 1% of that in Western Europe. The two series of podcasts already broadcast have been used to help train clinicians and nurses in Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa, including Malawi.

The practice of psychiatry in a colonial setting is surprisingly varied. Even within British colonies around the world, those who received psychiatric care, where they were treated, and to what ends was significantly different. Other European colonies were different again.

Colonial psychiatry, as practised between the 18th century and the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, is a rich and varied topic.  To narrow it down, Professor Houston examines Anglophone southern and eastern Africa, between the 1880s and 1960s, covering the geographical and cultural area in which Malawi is located.

The mini series runs for four weeks starting on Tuesday, 23rd of January 2018.

Listen to the mini series

Series Three

Series Three will start early in 2018 and will be in dialogue format. I shall be talking to specialist researchers, clinicians, and carers about specific conditions, contexts, and types of care. My aim is to compare public perceptions of mental disorders and how they are treated, with those of experts in a variety of areas, so informing, de-mystifying, and hopefully de-stigmatizing opinion.


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