Madness and literature

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Mental Health Review Journal

ISSN: 1361-9322

Article publication date: 16 September 2011



Crawford, P., Baker, C. and Brown, B. (2011), "Madness and literature", Mental Health Review Journal, Vol. 16 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Madness and literature

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Mental Health Review Journal, Volume 16, Issue 3

In August 2010, the Institute of Mental Health hosted the 1st International Health Humanities Conference: Madness & Literature, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK. The conference was attended by a range of individuals who are prominent in the fields of medicine and literature, such as Elaine Showalter and Kay Redfield Jamison, and formed part of the Health Humanities initiative at the University of Nottingham.

Health Humanities is a novel approach that is rapidly developing beyond the Medical Humanities to become a much broader and more inclusive movement, aimed at investigating how theory and practice from a variety of arts and humanities disciplines can inform and advance individual and institutional notions of health and well-being, not least mental health (Crawford et al., 2010). This movement aims for greater inclusion of non-medical professionals, carers, service users and a wider self-caring public. It was in this spirit that the conference was held and its associated web site,, continues to attract a diverse membership of over 330 academic, clinical and lay members worldwide, offering short reviews of literature dealing with mental health themes or topics.

In this special issue, we have selected seven papers from the conference that provide a range of perspectives on literature about madness. We hope that these contribute to a deepening understanding about the interplay of narrative, literature and mental health relevant to both clinical practice and education.

Caroline Roe and Anne Garland provide a fascinating account of the use of poetry in the construction of meaning in Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy. In keeping with Health Humanities, this account of the role of poetry and metaphor in developing a therapeutic relationship is jointly written by the therapist and client, who has now herself become a therapist.

In an opinion paper, Angela Woods interrogates the importance of specific, accurate diagnosis in two autobiographical accounts of madness – in particular, how and why the increasingly contested Kraepelinian distinction between bipolar affective disorder and psychotic illness can and does remain of vital importance for individuals suffering from mental health issues.

Clare Dolman and Sarah Turvey explore the relationship of mood disorders and creativity through an interdisciplinary approach to Moby Dick, examining the case of Herman Melville as a writer affected by bipolar disorder.

The brief opinion paper by Imke Pannen focuses on Janice Galloway’s novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing and its “compassionate psychological realism”. In particular, the study deals with the slow recovery of an individual living with clinical depression.

Caroline Logan explores the theme of la femme fatale in the form of female psychopaths in fiction and clinical practice. Logan advances the view that a variety of fiction can assist both the clinician and the client in deepening their understanding of psychopathy in women, beyond its typical manifestation in men.

David Flood and Carol-Ann Farkas examine the function and value of using literature in clinical education by identifying the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives on mental illness, not least in devising “tools” of narrative competence for teaching about mental illness and exploring connections between narrative literary theory and narrative therapy.

Finally, the paper by Maureen Donohue-Smith also considers the role of literature in clinical education, arguing for memoir as a distinctive and “emotionally compelling” resource that should be interpreted in familial, clinical and cultural contexts. Furthermore, she points out that such texts should be considered in terms of the variation in psychiatric disorders across the life course.

In our recent book, Madness in Post-1945 British and American Fiction (Baker et al., 2010), we argue that literature affords us an illuminating point of entry into the complexities of madness, not just in terms of diverse mental states but also across a whole range of historical and socio-cultural contexts. Reading literature – in particular, fiction and autobiography – can provide a unique insight into the experiences of a range of mental states, giving a sense of what it may feel like to struggle with and hopefully recover from mental health difficulties. In today’s “fast healthcare” (Crawford and Brown, 2011) clinicians can often feel under pressure to adopt a “production-line mentality” and lose sight of the human in the process. Fictional narratives can offer a restorative ground for clinical being – a way to think about and feel for the person affected by, for example, psychosis, depression or dementia. Novels, short stories, memoir, plays and poetry can help us develop what Paul Gilbert calls a “compassionate mind” (Gilbert, 2009) and consider the rich interplay between social, political and cultural perspectives on madness.

Paul Crawford, Charley Baker, Brian Brown


Baker, C., Crawford, P., Carter, R., Lipsedge, M. and Brown, B. (2010), Madness in Post-1945 British and American Fiction, Palgrave, London

Crawford, P. and Brown, B. (2011), “Fast healthcare: brief communication, traps and opportunities”, Patient Education & Counselling, Vol. 82, pp. 3–10

Crawford, P., Brown, B., Tischler, V. and Baker, C. (2010), “Health humanities: the future of medical humanities?”, Mental Health Review, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 4–10

Gilbert, P. (2009), The Compassionate Mind, Constable Robinson, London

Paul Crawford is a Professor of Health Humanities based at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK. Charley Baker is a Lecturer in Mental Health based at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK. Brian Brown is a Professor of Health Communication based at the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

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