Europäische Zeitgeschichte

A history of psychiatry from below: the challenge of the archives

Until the 1970s, mentally ill patients were largely absent from the history of psychiatry. The field was dominated by triumphant narratives from doctors and critical perspectives from anti-psychiatrists. However, from the 1980s onwards, new historiographical approaches emerged to construct a history of psychiatry from the patient's viewpoint. A new generation of historians, led by British historian Roy
Porter, developed a social history of medicine that prioritized the experiences of those on the lower rungs of society. These approaches transformed the archives used in research by emphasizing patient records and individual sources instead of the institutional archives that produced top-down narratives. In recent years, Belgian historians have adopted a bottom-up approach to the history of psychiatry.
However, many archives-related obstacles still need to be overcome, including the lack of standardized conservation policies and inventories, limited expertise and coordination in archive management, and more stringent legal frameworks for safeguarding personal data. Historians must educate archive producers and conservators on the legal framework and develop methods for managing sensitive data, despite many psychiatric institutions refusing to open their archives to
researchers. This contribution addresses these issues and discusses ongoing research efforts in Belgium to establish a bottom-up history of psychiatry. While it will highlight the challenges in constructing an alternative narrative that prioritizes patient experiences, this contribution will also propose possible solutions to encourage the development of such a history.

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