Psychiatry’s past and present

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On World Mental Health Day, Rab Houston reflects on how the study of the past can help us to understand mental health issues today:

Some say the past is best forgotten, especially when it comes to dealing with mental illness and disability. I could not agree less. To be alive is to be touched by history.

My series of podcasts show the many different ways British and Irish people have sought to understand and deal with mental disorders over half a millennium –  the successes, failures, and dead ends that have characterised all human efforts to understand and improve their condition. I try to bring out the rich variety of perspectives there were on mind and body, and the array of familiar and peculiar responses adopted by individuals, communities, and governments, towards the care of those with mental problems. I talk about medical issues, but I am a social historian who cares about people and I have tried to show the influence that culture has on mental illness and mental health treatment.

From many perspectives and using a wealth of real-life examples, I explore where we have been and where we might go, in raising awareness of mental health issues and in mapping a better pathway to the future for sufferers and healers alike. Because they range over so many different contexts and include perspectives from multiple disciplines, I believe the podcasts offer a uniquely humane perspective on science, society, and welfare, past and present. They are a resource not only for medical professionals, but also for sufferers, their families, and anyone who wants to understand our changing perception and handling of the world’s fastest growing health condition.

The people of the past knew as well as we do that human beings are not simply biochemical machines. We can learn from them.

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