Despite its prevalence and relevance to the current day, maternal mental illness in the twentieth century has attracted scant historical attention. This Wellcome Trust funded project ‘The Last Taboo of Motherhood?’ aims to address this absence, by exploring the history of maternal mental illness in twentieth-century Britain.
We consider the relationship between psychiatric theory and practice and debates on diagnoses, causality and treatment, which over the course of the twentieth century involved a growing variety of health professionals, institutions and campaign organisations offering advice and support to mothers. The project considers how broad social and cultural factors, including attitudes towards motherhood and women’s changing status, were reflected in interpretations of postnatal mental illness during this period.
We investigate how theories about the impact of maternal mental illness shaped the defence of women accused of infanticide and child harm. We also explore public and media responses to maternal mental illness, and examine the experiences of sufferers, which together provide new insights into our understanding of the relationship between motherhood and mental illness in the past.