UCL and British Psychological Society History of Psychological Disciplines Seminar Series, 30th June 2014

Dr. Sarah Chaney (UCL)
 
‘A Perversion of Self-Feeling’: The Emergence of Self-Harm in Victorian Asylum Psychiatry
 
This paper explores the emergence of self-harm as a specific category of abnormal individual behaviour in the second half of the nineteenth century, when ‘self-mutilation’ was defined within asylum psychiatry. I will briefly explain the background of the asylum system and psychiatric profession in Western Europe and the USA in this period, and describe how ‘self-mutilation’ emerged from the interest clinicians had in classifying and defining ‘insane’ behaviour. In particular, this was associated with the widespread publicity given to the increasing decision to regard suicidal acts as evidence of mental illness. While it is often assumed today that Victorian writers made no distinction between suicidal and non-suicidal self-injury, I argue that this was not the case. Psychiatrists in the nineteenth century frequently claimed that self-mutilation was not carried out for suicidal reasons, although they differed in their method of applying alternative meaning to such acts.

Finally, I will explore why it was that this distinction was made in this particular period, and what led psychiatrists to draw parallels between different kinds of self-inflicted injury to create a universal category. The concept of self-harm today is often used to refer to an act of injury; this application, I argue, emerged from late nineteenth-century asylum psychiatry. While people had certainly harmed themselves in a variety of ways prior to this period, the late nineteenth century was the first time these diverse acts – from skin-picking to amputation – became regarded as equivalent behaviours. Combining them under the umbrella term ‘self-mutilation’ prompted the idea that some form of universal meaning might also be discoverable. Self-harm became viewed as an act that had meaning beyond the physical nature of any wounds inflicted or the immediate sensations caused; an act that revealed something of the character of an individual; and, in addition, an act that might help to explain the relationship between individual and society.
 
Organiser: Professor Sonu Shamdasani (UCL)
 
Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.
 
Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.
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