Museum visit enhances A Level psychology students’ understanding of the history of mental health treatment

Museum visit enhances A Level psychology students’ understanding of the history of mental health treatment

8 December 2023

Ms Mariyam Batka, Teacher of Psychology

On Tuesday 5 December, students studying A Level Psychology delved into the history of mental health care in England at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bromley. The museum is attached to Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was founded in 1247 and continues to provide psychiatric care for patients.

As students stepped through the museum's entrance, they were greeted by the infamous statues of mania and melancholy, which offered them a glimpse into the history of psychiatry. This was followed by a session with the museum’s archivist, where students explored the historical context of mental health treatment from medieval practices to the modern and more compassionate approaches we see today.

One of the highlights of the trip was the emphasis on art as a therapeutic outlet. The museum houses an impressive collection of artworks created by current and former patients of Bethlem Royal Hospital. The students took part in a learning session and discussion of renowned Canadian artist William Kurelek’s ‘The Maze’, painted in 1953 when he was a patient. This powerful piece gave us a window into William’s mind when he was grappling with mental health challenges and underscored the importance of creative expression in the healing process.

When exploring the exhibitions independently, students were pleased to find English artist Louis Wain’s ‘Kaleidoscope cat’ paintings, which feature in our psychology textbook. The museum debunked some of the myths about these paintings and the way in which they are linked to the schizophrenic mind.

Here are some of the students’ thoughts on the day:

I found it fascinating to learn how the history of mental health diagnosis and treatment changed so drastically over centuries. I also really enjoyed looking at how emotions and mental illnesses were portrayed in the artwork around the museum. Grace F

It was riveting to see William Kurelek’s painting ‘The Maze’ in real life, while discussing what it might depict, just like the psychiatrists at that time did to decipher his mental condition and determine the nature of his illness. It was a new experience for me, and I was astounded by the variety of ways people might portray their mentality. The museum also holds the painting’s sequel, ‘Out of the Maze’, which Kurelek painted after being discharged from Bethlem. I also loved seeing Louis Wain’s painting in real life and learning about the statues of ‘Raving’ and ‘Melancholy Madness'. These statues explicitly show the history of diagnosing psychosis before the development of the modern understanding of psychopathology. The trip filled us with in-depth information and burning questions to research. Clara J

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