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Dangerously Young: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from a Historical Perspective

Staff from the Archives and Museum recently attended the third International Conference on the History and Heritage of Psychiatry, which was held at the Museum Dr Guislain in Ghent on the 28 and 29 April.

The theme of the conference was Dangerously Young: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from a Historical Perspective. Bethlem's archives were featured in two papers: Colin Gale and Caroline Smith examined the cases of several child and adolescent patients treated at Bethlem in the nineteenth century and Zbigniew Kotowicz of the University of Lisbon drew upon his extensive research in the Bethlem archives to examine the development of child psychiatry. Surprisingly few children were treated at Bethlem; of the 1069 patients under the age of 21 admitted between 1815 and 1899 only 58 were 15 or under.

The Belgian perspective was provided by a number of high-profile speakers, including the Flemish Commissioner for the Rights of Children. Belgium has relatively high levels of teen suicide, children in prison, child abuse and domestic violence (shockingly it is statistically more dangerous to be a Belgian woman than a Belgian soldier) and several papers explored the connection between child abuse and delinquency.

The role of DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in the ever-increasing number of mental disorders being diagnosed in children was a recurring theme, and Lisa Appignanesi (Chair of the Freud Museum) questioned how far an attempt is being made to medicalise ordinary emotions such as sadness, shyness and anxiety in order to benefit the drug companies.

Overall this was a thought-provoking conference and an excellent opportunity to meet representatives from museums of psychiatry throughout Europe. There was also a chance to pay a visit to one of Bethlem's paintings: The Anger Within by Elise Warriner, on loan to the Museum Dr Guislain as part of their exhibition The Weighty Body: Fat or Thin, Vanity or Insanity. The exhibition explores the histo ry of fasting, including those who stopped eating for religious or political reasons, and includes several works on the theme of anorexia nervosa. The exhibition has now closed but is due to be reprised at the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden in 2012.