Understanding Mental Health: Past and present

Over the past 100 years, there have been a huge number of theories about what causes mental ill-health: from infection to childhood trauma, from neurotransmitters to the human genome. Different groups have often held different views about what causes depression, anxiety or psychosis, and what these things even mean.

How do you understand mental illness?

Understanding Mental Health is a team of historians, sociologists and psychiatrists and an artist, led by Dr Sarah Marks at Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health, Dr Sarah Chaney and Dr Rebecca Wynter. We  are exploring some of the key theories in mental health science today through a historical lens. How, we ask, did mentalisation emerge from psychoanalysis? Why might it be important to situate genome studies in the long history of eugenics and heredity studies? And when was discrimination first considered a factor in approaching mental health and illness? How has the idea of trauma changed over time?

As well as presenting a critical understanding of mental health theory, the team also seeks to foreground lesser-known approaches to mental health. This often leads beyond science and medicine to the contributions of the service user and survivor movements, of anthropology, transcultural psychiatry and the humanities.

What are we doing?

This project is commissioned by the Wellcome Trust’s Mental Health Team, for whom we are preparing a report on the history of ideas about the causes of mental ill health, articles for peer-reviewed journals, and – along with artist Sasha Bergstrom-Katz – a digital artwork that will be hosted online from the end of 2023. We will also be gathering a number of oral history testimonies from clinicians, mental health scientists and survivor activists, and will be circulating questionnaires to groups to understand current views on ideas of causation. If you are interested in being involved and sharing your views, please contact s.marks@bbk.ac.uk

Our team is collaborating with a number of groups to create these outputs, including MadZine Research, Mental Fight Club, and the Birmingham Institute for Mental Health.

Image credit: Phrenological Chart; with design of head containing 4 illustrations showing activity of brain. Colour lithograph c. 1900? Public Domain Mark, Wellcome Collection.