'The Last Taboo of Motherhood?: Postnatal Mental Disorders in Twentieth-Century Britain'


  • Prof Hilary Marland

    University of Warwick, United Kingdom

Project summary

The shocking effect of maternal mental illness was highlighted in Louis Theroux's 2019 BBC documentary on puerperal psychosis, which described new motherhood potentially as 'a time of extreme psychiatric difficulty'. Celebrity accounts, magazine articles and books describing individual and terrifying journeys through these conditions highlight their devastating impact on new mothers and their families. 10-15% of childbearing women develop postnatal depression and one in 1,000 women the more extreme symptoms of postpartum psychosis. Despite increasing acceptance, postnatal mental illness now, as in the past, is perceived as a challenge to the very essence of motherhood that in some cases risks the life of the newborn. This project examines on-going debates on understanding and treating these disorders across the twentieth century in medical and legal practice, and in public and media responses, also questioning how the experiences of sufferers can shed new light on the relationship between motherhood and mental illness.