Top 10 books about psychiatry

5. The Ha-Ha by Jennifer Dawson

The grand buildings and grounds of the hospital in this novel – published in 1961, after the passing of the reforming 1959 Mental Health Act but before the liberal mental health movement of the mid-60s and early 70s took off – are a prison where “the test of psychiatric cure”, as Dawson writes in an afterword, “was whether the patient was fitted back neatly into his (usually her) unquestioned slot” in society. Introverted Josephine Traughton, who lacks “the knack of existing”, seems set to be successfully “regraded” after a breakdown but hides out in the walled ditch, or ha-ha, in the hospital garden, and eventually escapes the roles forced on her.

6. Asylums by Erving Goffman

These four brilliant essays support Dawson’s and Laing’s intuition that confinement of the mentally ill can be a form of socio-political violence against non-conforming voices. In Goffman’s fiercely argued analysis, mental hospitals function as “total institutions” that aim to reinforce predicable behaviour – not just for inmates, but for staff, too.

7. An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame

New Zealander Frame relates without self-pity how she spent eight years in various psychiatric institutions in the 1940s and 50s after being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, “a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity and the dwelling-place of those judged insane”. Against all odds she completed a volume of short stories, The Lagoon. In 1954 she was scheduled to have a lobotomy when the book won a national literary prize and she was released. She is not exaggerating when she says: “My writing saved me.”

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