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Changing public representations of mental illness in Britain 1870-1970

By Vicky Long


This thesis uses Habermas' arguments concerning the public sphere and Nancy Fraser's concept of counter-public spheres as a framework to explore how changes in the representation of mental illness occurred between 1870 and 1970. Within this period, the nineteenth-century polarisation of sanity and madness that had led to the segregation of the mentally ill within the asylum gave way to the belief that mental health and illness formed a continuum. Psychiatry extended beyond the walls of the asylum into the community, expanding its scope to incorporate the nominally healthy. These developments, which culminated in the creation of community mental health services and the closure of the asylums, suggest that mental disturbance was no longer seen solely as the problem of sick individuals but of the public at large, and points to a potential destigmatisation of mental illness. To examine if the representation of mental illness matched these developments in practice and to explain why, this thesis studies how groups directly connected to the mentally ill, conceptualised as sub-public groups, sought to represent mental illness. The groups studied are the Medico-Psychological Association in Chapter One, the National Asylum Workers' Union in Chapter Two, The Association of Psychiatric Social Workers in Chapter Three and a charity, the Mental After Care Association, in Chapter Four. The fifth chapter explores patients and the representation of mental illness. It is argued that such sub-public groups helped initiate a debate about mental illness and enabled a broader spectrum of people to participate in the debate. However, it is suggested that private and professional motivations impinged upon how groups chose to represent the mentally ill. The thesis argues that the difficulties groups experienced balancing the representation of their own interests with those of the mentally ill, combined with the negative perceptions some sub-public groups held regarding the general public's capacity to participate in a debate on mental illness, obstructed their efforts to communicate with the public and to represent the interests of the mentally ill. Finally, the thesis uses the case study of the BBC to explore the factors that influenced the media to cover the issue of mental health and illness. This final chapter illustrates the interactions that occurred between media organisations and sub-public groups

Topics: RA
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