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Home Uncategorized Time to Listen

Time to Listen

Liam Hennessy
Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland, by Brendan Kelly, Irish Academic Press, 500 pp, €39.99, ISBN: 978-1911024347 Hearing Voices is TCD psychiatry professor, quondam historian and polymath Brendan Kelly’s magnum opus and is likely to supplant the existing histories of the controversial subject of Irish psychiatric practice and experience as the definitive work on this traditionally medical discipline. As Kelly explains in the introduction, his title is deliberately chosen to reflect the thesis that his history of Irish psychiatry encompasses three dimensions. The first is the traditional notion that hearing voices was the classical symptomatology of possible psychosis. The second is Kelly’s attempt to distil the voices of patients and those who cared, to a greater or lesser degree, for them and who were often, in a sense, almost as institutionalised as those they cared for. Finally, there is the focus on more modern approaches to psychiatry – the recovery model of mental illness and the development of movements in the patient or service-user community such as the Hearing Voices Network, which seeks to validate hearing voices as a common human experience, and such other structures which are being put in place to enable the collective views of patients and their families to be taken into account. Crucially, Kelly indicates at the outset that he proposes to place particular emphasis on the interactions between psychiatry and society, owing, as he puts it, to “the intrinsically societal basis of the Irish asylums of the 1800s and 1900s, and the social roles commonly foisted (and all too often accepted by) psychiatry, no matter how unsuitable”. Kelly is very clear about his attitudes to this experience and he explicitly states (and pursues throughout his history) that “this regrettable feature is a recurring theme” of his narrative. But before delving into that narrative, it would be important to identify just what is the “psychiatry” that Kelly sets out to trace the history of in Ireland. Here Kelly adopts the late Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare’s definition of psychiatry being “that branch of medicine that is concerned with the study and treatment of disorders of mental function”. Now there will be many – particularly those in the so-called anti-psychiatry or survivor-of-psychiatry movements – who will contest this and object strongly to distressful mental circumstances being “medicalised” or “excessively medicalised”, as the jargon has it. This, undoubtedly, can be a valid perspective, given the seemingly inexorable growth of…



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