Whispers from psychiatry’s past

Thursday 12 December 2019

Rab Houston is a professor in the School of History, who researches the history of psychiatry. In recent years this has taken a public engagement focus, with Rab focusing on a REF impact case study called ‘Promoting Mental Health Through the Lessons of History’. This project shines a light on how mental health care and psychiatry functioned in Britain and Ireland since 1500.

This project takes the form of a podcast which Rab has written and produced since 2016. Currently there is a series of 85 podcasts on the history and general practice of psychiatry, from the viewpoint of both the carer and the sufferer. These are freely available online and have had over 50,000 listens/downloads. These podcasts have been used to educate health professionals, practitioners, academics and the public in the UK, Europe, North America and Africa. Through his podcasts Rab has been able to inform professional bodies’ standards and practices on an international scale; provide training resources for clinical psychiatry and change mental health awareness among the public.

To add a visual aspect to the podcasts, in 20018 Rab worked with the University of Dundee Archives and National Records of Scotland to produce two photo exhibitions, entitled ‘Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum’ and ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal insanity in Victorian Scotland’.  These exhibits have been displayed in 5 prisons across Scotland, in the Members’ area of the Scottish Parliament, in the entrance hall of a major financial services company in Edinburgh, and at science festivals. ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal insanity in Victorian Scotland’ was also a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which was displayed at the collaborators, the National Records of Scotland. This attracted lots of TV, radio and press coverage. Rab has continually thought through the strategically best placings of his exhibits, which as given way for them to be used as part of mental health education and training in creative writing.


This body of work, which has taken many contemporary forms, allowed Rab to win the Innovation Award at the University of St Andrews, Public Engagement Awards in October 2019. Rab has noted that by participating in public engagement has significantly changed his approach to research, making him a better communicator and clarifying what the public and medical professionals know about mental health past and present, and what they want (and need) to know to inform present and future decisions. Rab says he now focuses more precisely on the roots and routes of modern attitudes and practices relating to mental health.

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