The Lost Histories of Patient Publications


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Calling all historians, Victorianists, creative types, ex or current service users,  mental health staff, occupational therapists and any interested in history and/or mental health!

Do you have a story about patient creativity you’d like to share?

I’m currently working on a project investigating the history of mental health with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950.

By ‘patient publication’, I mean pamphlets, magazines, journals, leaflets and any sort of creative material which was made by those who lived or were treated at mental health hospitals, institutions or asylums during this period.

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[Image: A copy of The Wishing Well, a patient publication produced by patients at Graylingwell Hospital in Chichester.]

As I’m looking at creative examples which utilise both textual and visual elements, this research project intends to champion the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural nature of these historical pieces of work.

The different forms of media production produced in asylum environments has included painting, printing, textiles artwork such as knitting, and all forms of written work, including poetry.

I’m hunting for examples of these patient publications, as well as photographs, other material objects, and the memories, knowledge or stories of anyone who may have worked with or on these projects.

The concept of a patient-produced publication has an elusive but interesting history – prior to the dawn of the National Health Service, any such publications would require approval of the medical superintendent as well as the visiting committee.

The visiting committee’s role would include restricting any undesirable material which may have brought the hospital into disrepute and possible censorship of candid accounts or other visual expressions.

Alongside other in-house low-key periodicals, sometimes overseen by chaplains, there are other examples of patient artwork and writing available in local archives.


[Image: A sketch reproduced in The Wishing Well magazine.]

I’m planning trace the history of patient-produced in-house publications.

There are lots of lost histories to uncover and stories that deserve to be told.

Do these periodicals demonstrate a prioritising of creative expression in mental health care? And if so, does this progressive attitude echo other evolving concepts in medicine and social awareness of psychological illness?

I’m aiming to map out the origins of this creative drive for mental health care patients in the latter nineteenth century, which altered and evolved upon the introduction of changes in printing and censorship in the early twentieth century.

What I’m planning to do is use the archival evidence I have and will collect to explore how the ideology driving this encouragement of creative expression impacts upon our contemporary understanding of treatments in nineteenth century asylums.

This is a project I’m working on as a postgraduate researcher with the School of English at the University of Sussex, and I’m also lucky enough to be an AHRC/CHASE funded doctoral candidate, so thank you so much to both the University of Sussex and AHRC/CHASE for their wonderful support.

Please check out the poster below for more information, and feel free to circulate it to anyone you think might be interested!

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