Disability History Month Poster 5: Childbirth and Mental Illness, Past and Present

Mental illness following childbirth has a long history, and our understanding has changed according to social circumstances and dominant medical frameworks, as has the way in which postpartum mental illness has fitted into our lives.

In the nineteenth-century, the term ‘puerperal insanity’ dominated descriptions of mental illness associated with childbirth in medical literature, but a lay understanding and accepted discourse also existed within families and communities. A body of ideas about postpartum mental illness was built on a collaboration of medical knowledge, acquired through interactions with doctors, and ‘homespun’ ideas and understandings. Women were supported by their families, who interacted with doctors and were consulted in the treatments given, making them active consumers of healthcare.  Families were often able to maintain an effective level of patient care, but sought help when women’s behaviour became unmanageable, dangerous or public.  Once admitted to an asylum, postpartum patients often responded well to a regime of rest and nourishment – Isabella, pictured on the poster, a blacksmith’s wife who lived in St Andrews, was admitted to Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum in March 1903 but was discharged, recovered, after only two months.  In criminal cases, there was often considerable sympathy for women who were seen as suffering from ‘puerperal insanity’ and not responsible for their actions.

Today it is estimated that postpartum depression affects around ten to fifteen women to every hundred births and postpartum psychosis occurs in about one in one thousand women who have a baby in the United Kingdom, while some estimates suggest that one in five childbearing women are affected by some form of postpartum mental disorder worldwide.  These figures are likely to be underestimates. The last few years have seen a growing interest in these conditions, but postpartum mental disorders remain underrepresented, misunderstood and shrouded in stigma.  Examining the experiences of women and their families in the past contributes to the ongoing conversation about mental illness and parenthood in the present.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Morag Allan Campbell, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December.

Further reading: 

Brockington, Ian. The Psychoses of Menstruation and Childbearing. Cambridge University Press, 2017

Campbell, Morag Allan. ‘‘Noisy, Restless and Incoherent’: Puerperal Insanity at Dundee Lunatic Asylum.’ History of Psychiatry 28, no. 1 (2017/03/01 2016): 44- 57.

Cossins, Annie. Female Criminality: Infanticide, Moral Panics and the Female Body. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 

Kilday, Anne-Marie. A History of Infanticide in Britain, C. 1600 to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 

Marland, Hilary. Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830- 1980. Penguin Books, 1987.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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