Mental Health and Safeguarding in Childhood (1880-1920)

The approaches to safeguarding and supporting mental health and wellbeing in childhood today, are not all that different from those in the Victorian and Edwardian times.  Studying a total of 120 case files from the Children’s Society’s archives from 1880-1920, with a specific focus on language around mental health, revealed a number of similarities. The reasons for being taken into care, were and are still very much the same, namely based around the relationship between child and family, mental health of the parents and alcoholism (and surprisingly few children were taken into care due to being orphans in the Victorian/Edwardian times as is commonly thought).

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Joined up working and multi-agency teamwork is now, as it was then, problematic; practice is fragmented, partly due to lack of funding. In addition to this, the child’s ‘voice’ seems to be only sporadically acknowledged – then and now. For example, one case file from 1920 refers to a 16 year old girl asking to ‘come out of the asylum’ and ‘start afresh’; this never happened. Similar developments can still be seen now, where children have a lack of choice in what happens to them in care, with care leavers describing the care system as ‘extremely disappointing’, whilst reflecting upon this. Other similarities are a focus on the child’s behaviour, and practical and cognitive abilities (e.g. think about the current focus on ‘NEET’, not in education, training or employment), at the cost of attention for mental health and wellbeing.

This research was presented at the European Society for the History of Human Sciences conference (ESHHS) in Italy, by Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten an academic in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth, drawing on her research on mental health in childhood, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The purpose of ESHHS is to promote international, multidisciplinary cooperation in scholarly activity and research in the history of the human sciences.

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The term ‘mental health’ was popularised in the early 1900s by physicians and social reformers. Over a century later, mental health and wellbeing are recurrent themes in the media and on government agendas, with evidence that still more needs to be done on this front. This research shows how many of the issues that concern contemporary studies of childhood (e.g. parenting, poverty) have a historical trajectory that informs the present. Stigma continues to play a significant role, and understandings are subject to the interests and values of the people, organisations and institutions attempting to define and interpret terms.

Comparing the historic research in the Children’s Society archives with current date from 84 interviews with school children, young care leavers and parents reveals that although language around mental health and wellbeing has developed (e.g. correspondence in 1880 refers to a young girl as a ‘lunatic’ and a father as ‘hopelessly insane’) the approach taken by those responsible for children’s welfare has changed remarkably little in over 100 years.  More needs to be done to improve mental health care and reduce stigma and I hope some of this research can be used to challenge today’s interpretation and treatment and get the best for our children.

Mental Health Awareness Event (8th of May) – How can we improve mental health in children & young people?

Increasing numbers of young people experience high levels of anxiety, stress and depression. This can have a massive impact on their health, relationships and future options. The Mental Health Foundation draws attention to the fact that “good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem.”

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten gives a warm welcome to the morning's keynote speaker - Alison Jeffery and panelists: Sarah Darton, Emma Maynard and Melanie Goddard
Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten gives a warm welcome to the morning’s keynote speaker – Alison Jeffery and panelists: Sarah Darton, Emma Maynard and Melanie Goddard

Key questions here are – 

  • How many of us are surviving or thriving, and what is the difference between the two?
  • Why are some communities under strain and what can the government do to support them to thrive?
  • What steps can we take to look after our mental health, build resilience and cope with the demands of life?
  • To provide a greater understanding of this highly topical and constantly developing area, the MICE Hub hosted a special event to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (8th – 14th of May).
Keynote speaker Alison Jeffery discusses "mental health as everyone's business: emotional wellbeing in education, safeguarding and city wide children's services
Keynote speaker Alison Jeffery discusses “mental health as everyone’s business: emotional wellbeing in education, safeguarding and city wide children’s services

The event took place on Monday 8th May from 10.30am to 3pm in the University’s St George’s Building, 141 High Street, Portsmouth. Keynote speakers were Alison Jeffery, Director of Children’s Services at Portsmouth City Council,  who talked about ‘Mental health as everyone’s business: emotional well-being in education, safeguarding and city wide children’s services’ and Dr David Harper from the University of East London who looked at ‘Rethinking Approaches to Mental Health Stigma’.

In addition to this there were contributions from national charities, such as Family Links, Wessex Academic Health Science Network and academics and research staff from the University of Portsmouth and beyond.

Sarah Darton welcome questions from the audience
Sarah Darton welcomes questions from the audience on the topic of Mental Health, Wellbeing and Families

This was a thought-provoking day, with talks ranging from mental health and wellbeing in early childhood, midwifery, through to mental health in schools and HE and wellbeing of care leavers and mental and social work. In her keynote Alison Jeffery focussed on the MH strategy in Portsmouth and what is being done to support children and young people (and what needs to be done). Melanie Goddard from the Roberts Centre (child focused charity in Portsmouth) talked about programmes and support for young care leavers and birth mothers, whilst Sarah Darton from the national charity Family Links focused on emotional health and resilience in children and families in her talk.  The need to see the bigger picture and engage with family stories and narratives was echoed by Emma Maynard in her session on engaging family narratives.

 

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The University of Portsmouth’s Dr. Gina Sherwood introduces the panel – Sarah Darton, Emma Maynard and Melanie Goddard, and invites questions from the audience.

Dr David Harper, director of clinical psychology programmes at UEL discussed approaches to mental health stigma, highlighting that there is a need to tackle the stereotyping of MH issues that appears to specifically exist amongst young people. Mental Health in HE was also discussed, with Denise Meyer, Head of Welbeing, UoP flagging up the support services that are available in the University, such as the WhatsUp app. Alison Griffiths, programme manager mental health at Wessex Academic Health Science Network flagged up that 20-24 year olds account for the largest number of mental health emergency departments attendances, 8% of which are University students; Clare Wilson from the University of Portsmouth discussed the need for mental health support groups and the research that she has done around in.

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten thanks the keynote speakers and panelists for their time and effort preparing such informative content for the event.

 

Taken as a whole, there was lots of evidence of good practice, but the need for more work on this front was also consistently highlighted.

Approach to childhood mental health based on Victorian values

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten’s research, funded by The Wellcome Trust, reveals a different story than expected when it comes to the Victorian’s approach to children’s mental health.  In essence, little has changed over the last 100 years in our approach to these issues. The organisations and agencies involved struggled then, just as they do now. Although the use of language may have changed, many of the same stigmas surrounding mental health still exist today.

Approach to childhood mental health based on Victorian values