A group from the CAPS team recently visited the Lothian Health Services Archive at Edinburgh University to find out more about mental health history in Edinburgh and Lothian. Lothian Health Services Archive is the biggest medical archive in the UK, with records dating back to 1729. One of the archivists, Louise Neilson, gave us a fascinating introduction. Researchers who visit the archive use the collection from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Edinburgh’s psychiatric hospital, the most regularly. The archive has over one million case files relating to people being treated in the hospital. The physicians wrote their case notes, which we leafed through, very much from the institution’s point of view. They often contained moral judgements about the character of the people in the hospital.
Perspective of those being treated in the hospital
However, there are some sources that give us a little of the perspectives of the people who were in hospital. For example, people in the hospital created the magazine the Morningside Mirror. It ran from 1845 right up to the 1970s. The people filled the magazine with accounts of the activities that they would do and the excursions they would go on. Although people in hospital wrote the magazine it could be seen to some extent as propaganda for the hospital. And it’s important to remember that only literate people contributed to the magazine.
The collection also has a large number of letters written by people staying at the hospital. Hospital staff would open letters that people wished to send to loved ones outside the hospital. Sadly, a lot of the letters never reached their intended recipients as medical staff kept them back if they were deemed to be ‘inappropriate’. For one person, John Home, who stayed at the hospital from 1886-1887, the collection includes 180 letters that were never sent. There are also a number of extraordinary watercolours by professional painter John Myles who was being treated in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in the 1880s. Some of his portraits of other people in the hospital are included in this page.
Oor Mad History
CAPS community history project Oor Mad History traces the development of the mad activist movement over several decades. Oor Mad History has developed an archive looking at mental health history in Edinburgh and Lothian and further afield. Oor Mad History donated a large part of its archive to the Lothian Health Services Archive in 2013. So we were especially keen to see some of those items that had come from the Oor Mad History project.
For example I looked at a “Mental Patient’s Campaigning Group’s Manifesto” from the 1980s. It states “As we are not insane, we consider it a duty to help us over legal or health problems while we are in a mental hospital. We want to see this no longer abused”. For the Survivors Speak Out Conference in 1987 there was a “Charter of Needs and Demands” that included “that mental health service providers recognise and use people’s first hand experience of emotional distress for the good of others”
“Principles Underlying User Empowerment” states that “services need to recognise the existence of power relations and conflicts of interest between service providers and service users”. For the Scottish Women’s Health Fair of 1983 there were many brightly coloured leaflets about women and mental health. One reads “For some women anxiety becomes overwhelming and the whole shooting match spirals out of control…It is no wonder we feel petrified and bewildered”.
CAPS continues to bring people who have experience of mental health issues together. People collaborate on collective advocacy projects like Oor Mad History to challenge power imbalances. As groups they raise their voices with the intention that services can be designed more effectively to meet people’s needs.