HHH column: S.O.S. – Save our sources! by Irene Geerts

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Irene Geerts, PhD candidate at the Open University of The Netherlands and previous web editor of HHH, as well as creator of our monthly column tradition. Irene’s PhD thesis deals with the origins of the Dutch family movement in mental health that arose in the early 1980s. In this column, Irene warns about the impending loss of material on the history of mental health organisations, and explains why it is important to save these sources.

S.O.S. – Save our sources!

Irene Geerts

Ever since, in 1985, Roy Porter called on medical historians to write histories from the patient perspective, researchers have been creative in identifying useful sources to do so. Especially for times and places where personal written or recorded sources are scarce and oral history interviews are impossible, historians have used documentation like patient files, notary records, and newspapers. For the period after the Second World War (and in some cases even before), however, there are sources that offer direct access to the patient perspective: the archives of patient and family movements in (mental) health. Unfortunately, of the illustrious Dutch mental health consumer and family movement (in Dutch: cliënten- en naastenbeweging), very few archives have been kept. And now that the last activists of the 1970s and 80s are clearing out their bookshelves, we stand to lose important sources on the movement’s founding and most vocal years.

Patient and family movements have been very influential in the way Western societies have dealt with matters of health over the past 75 years. In The Netherlands, the mental health movement has been particularly important with regard to care policies and practices, as well as with regard to the bigger picture of how we look at and deal with mental health problems. The movement has been instrumental, for example, in cracking the taboo on talking about mental health issues and continues to battle the stigma just like it always has since its start in the 1960s. Many Dutch people over forty remember the famous reflecting posters the Pandora anti-stigma foundation used in their campaigns for decades, asking onlookers whether they had ever met a normal person, while mirroring their faces. This important piece of heritage is currently on display at the Museum van de Geest (Museum of the Mind) in Haarlem, but other source material like this is on the verge of being lost.

“Have you ever met a normal person? and… liked them?” Poster by the Pandora anti-stigma foundation.

Soon after I started my PhD research into the origins of the Dutch family movement in mental health – the movement of family members of people with psychiatric problems – I found that very few organizations had kept archives that went further back than ten years, and the personal archives of its pioneers were largely lost as well. For the mental health consumer movement, the situation was equally worrisome, although a little bit better. The Pandora library, for example, has been included in the collection of the Museum van de Geest, and the museum has allowed me to study this interesting collection with unique grey literature, even though it is not really equipped to receive researchers. Similarly, although it is not part of their collection policy or structurally covered by their funding, they are also accepting personal archives of key figures of the movement in order to prevent that valuable materials are lost . The museum does not lack the will, but it lacks the resources and the infrastructure to process these archives and make them accessible.

This year, I am joining forces with Petra Hunsche, a journalist who wrote the history of the Dutch consumer movement and is equally concerned about the loss of its archives. Of course, we understand that archival institutions are selective, but we hope to convince them that the sources of the consumer and family movement are of national importance and need to be saved as well as made accessible to researchers. We will be seeking collaboration with Joost Vijselaar, emeritus professor of psychiatry, who, with the support of the Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed (the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science) is preparing a commission to survey the current state of mental health care heritage in The Netherlands and come up with solutions for its preservation and use. This is important not only because these movements have been so influential in shaping how our society deals with mental health problems, but also because activists in the current Dutch mental health movement are increasingly displaying an interest in its history and finding inspiration in it. These histories must be told, and so these sources must be saved.

Are you a member of HHH and are you interested in writing a column on a topic of your choice? E-mail us at chiara.lacroix@gmail.com.