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.

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