Survivors History archive of a discussion about Survivor History that first appeared in Open Mind in 1998 and 1999. (See place in history). Most of the text also appears on the Mind website at link one and - link two

Reproduced with permission of Peter Beresford and John Hopton - Peter Linnett died 1.9.2007

Open Mind May/June 1998

Peter Beresford

Past tense

Peter Beresford on the need for a survivor-controlled museum of madness

If mental health service users/survivors are to take charge of our future, then we must also regain control of our past. That past, at both individual and collective levels, has largely been appropriated, denied, controlled and reinterpreted by other powerful interests, notably medical professionals, the state, politicians, charitable organisations and the media. This has been destructive to all our futures. In recent years, the survivors' movement has begun to challenge this rewriting of our history. In this article I want to explore one particular way of giving this challenge further concrete expression: creating a survivor-controlled museum of madness and the psychiatric system.

Now is a crucial time in our history to reclaim our past. I am focusing here on two recent events which highlight the paramount importance of recording our side of the story before it becomes too late. The first is the announcement of the sudden death of community care. Since Frank Dobson's reported reversal of policy ('Care in the community is scrapped Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1998), confusion and uncertainty have surrounded future policy. Best guesses point to a reinforcement of failed medical solutions, without adequate financing, as the likely way forward. Frank Dobson

For service users, community care has been the most chequered and ambiguous of policies. The efforts of individual survivors, survivor organisations, allies and supportive practitioners have meant the winning of some genuine gains in policy and provision. Rights, involvement and empowerment have been forced onto the agenda. But, crucially for mental health service users, community care has been a public relations disaster. Its inadequate implementation and under-resourcing have set back by a generation both public perceptions of madness and distress, and how many service users may see themselves. The most appalling Victorian stereotypes of subhumanity, dangerousness and axe-wielding murder have been reinforced with all the power and subtlety of the modern media. It is probably difficult to overestimate the destructive effects that this has, both for current mental health service users and for anyone facing madness or mental distress for the first time.

The rather more specific event which highlights the need for a user-created history has been the celebration of the 750th anniversary of Bedlam. We might have expected that a history that from its earliest days reveals a familiar catalogue of inquiries, scandals, abuse and inhumanity would be approached with the same sadness and solemnity as any other past inhumanity or oppression. Instead it has become an opportunity, complete with commemorative mug, keyring, paper clip and teeshirt, for reinforcing professional pride and the brand identity of a medical product which by its users accounts has more to correct than to be proud of. Perhaps most disturbing of all has been its associated exhibition. This is presented in classic modernist terms of centuries of progress, culminating in modern psychiatry and the Maudsley Hospital.

It is made all the worse because it is given the respectability of being housed in the Museum of London, which generally shows a sensitivity to issues of difference and discrimination. The current psychiatric orthodoxy that 'genes contribute to most mental illness' is presented as fact. The experience of thousands of inmates is reduced to a handful of indecipherable photographs posed in hospital wards and grounds, and select biographies of the famous and curious few.

The commemoration and exhibition are disturbing snapshots of how powerful dominant versions of psychiatry remain, despite the emergence of survivorså organisations and movements. They offer a warning, but it is one which survivors and mental health service users' organisations are heeding. One of the good things that has come out of the commemoration has been the direct action by survivors, and the news coverage that it has sparked. This is just one expression of a much bigger survivors' culture which has flowered in recent years, reflected in our own poetry, art, photography and creative writing, our own accounts and biographies, our own analyses, evaluations and training materials - and our own histories of ourselves and our movement. But the Bedlam revival, like the current shift in government policy, is a reminder of just how much more survivors still have to do, with less power, credibility and money than the psychiatric system.

There is also another cause for concern. When the psychiatric hospitals and asylums have gone and the last of the thousands who spent decades in them are dead, how will people know what life was really like for their inmates? How will the scale of suffering and physical, mental and sexual abuse within them be remembered? What sanitised accounts of the aims and regimes of these institutions will be offered? Many of them have already been demolished. Others are being recycled as industrial units and private housing. The biggest psychiatric hospital in the world was recently advertised in the Sunday Times as 'a rare and unique opportunity to acquire luxury apartments in a period listed building, set within 30 acres of woodland, with no mention of its original function - its history deliberately hidden.

Survivors Princess Park Manor offers a rare and unique opportunity to acquire luxury apartments in a period listed building, set within 30 acres of parkland all within minutes of London's main commuter network. Throughout its distinguished history, Princess Park Manor has had an aura of grandeur about it.

One of these institutions should be preserved as living testimony of the experience of the generations who lived and died within their walls. There have already been some attempts to create institutional museums, for example, at the Stanley Royd Hospital, the old 'West Yorkshire Pauper Lunatic Asylum' and at Calderstones Hospital. But what, crucially, should distinguish this initiative is that it is planned, established and run under the control of psychiatric system survivors and our organisations. Then the possibility of perpetuating professional accounts or becoming another peep show is minimised. It could also build on work that survivors have already done, putting together our accounts in exhibitions, books, news and broadcast media. Such a memorial could collect and house:

  • the accounts and testimony of psychiatric system survivors over the years;

  • a developing archive of survivor material;

  • survivors' mementoes; and

  • artefacts of psychiatry and its institutions.

    It could reflect the different periods in the history of psychiatry, from the insane asylums of the last century, to the chemical-based warehouse psychiatric hospitals of the second half of the twentieth century. It could make a strong case for lottery funding - unusual in being strong on heritage and 'user involvement'!

    For some survivors, the idea of retaining the bricks and mortar of even one psychiatric hospital may be too painful and they want them all razed to the ground. This view demands respect, but will future generations be able to conceive of what these grim institutions were really like, without any presence to remind them? Could survivors, if they had not experienced them? Wouldn't it have been easier to deny the holocaust if the remains of the extermination camps had been destroyed, as the Nazis intended? Such institutions are the embodiment of both the failure and the cruelty of the medical model of madness. Reclaiming one as a home for our history gives us an opportunity to tell our truths; to show how badly psychiatry failed, and to ensure that there can be no going back.

    Peter Beresford works with the Open Services Project and at Brunel University, and is a member of Survivors Speak Out. If you are interested in the museum proposal, or have any comments or ideas to offer about it, please write to

    Peter Beresford c/o OpenMind

    1. Partridge, C. 'Taking over the Asylum' Sunday Times 15 February 1998, p. 5.13.

    2. Holman, A. 'Yesterday's straitjacket is today's liquid cosh', Timely Reminders, Community Living, October 1996, p. 13.

    Open Mind July/August 1998


    whose stories?

    John Hopton From John Hopton
    School of Social Work, University of Manchester

    As Peter Beresford points out, many existing 'historical' accounts of psychiatry and psychiatric institutions are problematic, based as much on assumptions and professional prejudices as on objective facts.

    On the other hand, there are some accounts by mental health professionals (such as David Clark's work on Fulbourn) which offer valuable insights into how and why mental health services have developed in particular ways. Thus, Peter Beresford's suggestion that the solution to this problem is for users to develop a competing historical narrative seems misguided. This would simply leave us with two opposing historical accounts with similar methodological flaws and biases.

    What is required is collaborative historical research, bringing together service users, mental health : professionals and 'neutral' historians : and social scientists. Then, the privileged knowledge of both mental ; health service users and professionals \ may be taken into consideration ; and the contribution which both : groups can make to our historical : understanding may be acknowledged

    From Peter Linnett - London SW17

    Peter Beresford is right about 'the need for a survivor-controlled museum of madness'. Yesterday a friend and I toured a development of hundreds of expensive houses and flats on the former site of Tooting Bec psychiatric hospital. When it closed in 1995, the hospital had been there for almost 100 years. Many thousands of people had been patients there. We both used to work there, and wandering the site was a strange experience - not the slightest evidence of the hospital remained. The developer's glossy brochure did mention that this was the site of 'the famous Tooting Bee hospital'. It did not say what kind of hospital. At the very least, Lambeth Healthcare NHS Trust (former owners of the site) should have insisted on a memorial being placed there. The hospital was a grim place, but the people who lived, suffered and died there deserve to be remembered.

    Open Mind September/October 1998


    museum of madness

    In response to my article about a user-run museum John Hopton said it was misguided for users to develop a competing historical negative. As he must know, the issue is one of inequalities in power, and it is because of this that it is so important for survivors to be able to find a home for our history, just as other oppressed groups have done. As well as much media interest following the article, I have received many letters and enquiries from survivors interested in taking the idea forward. Following one suggestion received I plan to seek initial funding to take the idea forward. If you'd like to be involved please get in touch.

    Peter Beresford
    Open Services, Tempo House, 15 Falcon Rd, London SW11 2PJ.

    Open Mind November/December 1999

    Whose story is it anyway?

    Do we need a survivor history of madness?

    Peter Beresford and John Hopton develop the radically different views they first expressed in Openmind last year

    Dear John

    As you know I believe strongly that if we as mental health service users/survivors are to take control of our lives and future, then we must regain control of our past. We have to write our own histories. The history of madness, psychiatry and of us as individuals has so far been dominated and controlled by others; by professionals, charities, politicians and researchers. The effects have been demeaning and destructive for mental health service users. They have harmed the way individuals come to see themselves and how other people see them.

    I know you don't share this view, but how can you justify this, given the appalling ways in which mental health service users/survivors have traditionally been presented and their worsening treatment in the media and political debate now? Current discussion is almost entirely preoccupied with service users as dangerous, murderous and threatening. Mental health service users have to change this.

    Peter Beresford

    Dear Peter

    I've not always expressed my views about a user-centred history of mental health services very clearly in the past, but I have no problem with the idea of service users/survivors writing their own histories. Indeed, I would be the first to concede that some terrible things have happened to people in the name of mental health care and psychiatry. Furthermore some of the histories of mental health services written by academics and mental health professionals overlook abuses that have occurred. Worse still, some of the accounts by mental health professionals are overly sentimental, and almost make psychiatric hospitals sound as if they are desirable places to be. In that sense, I think it's vital that service users develop their own historical accounts. What I have a problem with is the idea of survivors' histories being presented in one place and 'official' and 'academic' histories being presented elsewhere.

    John Hopton

    Dear John

    I thought for a moment we were in agreement! But your last comment makes clear the gulf in understanding that survivors still have to bridge. You seem to be standing by your original comment which triggered this discussion that "for service users to develop a competing historical narrative seems misguided". The point is that it's not mental health service users/survivors who created the need to develop their own histories, but the 'official' or psychiatric history that has excluded them for so long. In reality, survivors' own views and accounts of their experience and perceptions have mainly been ignored and devalued for centuries. Their history has largely had to be a hidden and private one. Meantime, psychiatry and its allies established their own powerful organisations, colleges, journals and texts to perpetuate their versions of history and of survivors.

    History is always written by the winners, and mental health service users have been cast in the role of losers. Now, as a movement of mental health service users has developed, the official doors have opened a little. I am all for collaboration, but this has really only happened because the user/survivor movement has been able to exert influence and make its presence felt. And, crucially, survivors have succeeded in getting their voices heard, establishing their places to express their views and record their personal and collective histories, where these could be developed on their own terms, unedited and unqualified. This has led to new ways of thinking and understanding about madness and distress; about psychiatric categories like 'schizophrenia' and large-scale social issues like self- harm and eating distress.

    This is something to be proud of, not to regret. It means that there are now different ways of understanding madness and 'mental illness' and of addressing them. Writing its own history is one of the ways in which an oppressed group can challenge what is done to it. All the movements: women's, black people's, lesbians' and gay men's and disabled people's movements, have done this. It's another sign of the collective progress mental health service users/survivors are making.

    Dear Peter

    While user/survivor histories have indeed been ignored in official histories of psychiatry and mental health services, I would suggest that this reflects poor scholarship as much as it may reflect a deliberate attempt to ignore their side of the story. Much of the history of psychiatry and mental health services has been written by mental health professionals who have no formal training in historical research. Consequently, many such accounts have omissions, contain inaccuracies and incorporate analysis based on false assumptions.

    Such mistakes are easily made when people do not know where to find appropriate archive material. Unless survivors/users developing historical accounts are properly qualified historians themselves, or are able to enlist the help of such people, they will inevitably make similar mistakes. Indeed, I have read some accounts by survivors/users which are near-perfect mirror images of some of the worst professional accounts. Whereas some professional accounts tend to imply that all mental health professionals are 'saints', some user accounts imply that all mental health professionals are insensitive and uncaring. I have no wish to hide the fact that there have been serious abuses committed in the name of mental health care, but I also want acknowledgement that some professionals have made important contributions to developing humanistic understandings of and responses to mental health services. In that sense, it's not the development of users'/survivors' historical perspectives which worries me. What does worry me is that the development of separate historical narratives by users/survivors will lead to a kind of propaganda war between the authors of 'official histories' and the authors of the user/survivors histories. This could result in each side selectively focusing on extreme but atypical examples to score points off each other, so that we get further and further away from a proper historical understanding of how we got to where we are now.

    What I would like to see is a single archive or museum where oral testimonies from users/survivors would be side by side with oral testimonies from mental health professionals, together with various documentary sources and artifacts. If the testimonies of survivors/users tell completely different stories from those of mental health professionals, so be it. But I believe that we will never develop a truly accurate history of mental health services unless mental health professionals and survivors/users collaborate with properly qualified historians.

    John Hopton

    Dear John

    There's barely a word you've written I disagree with - in theory - but in practice it doesn't work. History isn't neutral or just about expertise and techniques. It's about who writes and controls it. It's about power, inequalities of power and conflict. We mustn't deny this. The only difference between now and the past is that conflicts between psychiatry and service users are at last coming out into the open. A crucial first step for us as survivors is to have safe space to develop our own narratives and history (and survivors will tell of the good as well as the bad), before our history can be placed next to professional accounts. We also have much more to offer than 'personal testimony'. We have our own important analyses and ideas. Yours is not an argument for rejecting survivors' own history, but for ensuring survivors have more support to develop it.

    Peter Beresford

    Dear Peter

    My concerns are based on two considerations. Firstly, I have a somewhat unfashionable belief in the quest for objective truths. Secondly, while I agree that history is always tied up with issues of power and control, critical writing on mental health generally (by academics, professionals and survivors) can be a little one-sided. For example, while many abuses have been committed in the name of behaviourism, many self-styled critical thinkers who attack it fail to engage with B.F. Skinner's argument that the form of behaviourism that he advocated was essentially humanistic.

    John Hopton

    Dear John

    I can't agree with your last point, but what I think we have shown in this correspondence is that with good will there can be collaboration and this discussion can be taken forward. Here's hoping it now will be.

    Peter Beresford

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