Year

2013

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of History and Politics

Abstract

This thesis is an empirical social history of grief and mental illness among Australian parents who suffered bereavement within the context of one of the greatest tragedies in modern history, the Great War of 1914-1918, and its aftermath. It locates the extremities of the wartime loss within the public mental asylum, and uses a fluid definition of bereavement to demonstrate its complexity. It addresses ways in which the public and private domains intersected in the inter-war years, as both medical professionals and individual families attempted to provide care for those psychologically traumatised by the war, and the factors that could either mitigate, or exacerbate, the mental distress of bereaved parents. It also examines ways in which society distinguished between war-related and ‘ordinary’ insanity and ways in which the public responded to mental illness and perceptions of the asylum itself.

Using ninety-one case studies from the closed patient medical files from two of the largest psychiatric institutions in New South Wales – Callan Park Mental Hospital and the Parramatta Psychiatric Centre – from 1915 until 1935, this study examines the multi-faceted and pervasive ways in which wartime bereavement manifested itself as mental illness among ordinary men and women and demonstrates that in many cases, the war was a direct cause of madness and permanent disability among those who had never enlisted nor left Australian shores. Unlike other epidemiological, medical or theoretical studies of bereavement, this thesis examines individual grief, disease and treatment at the micro-level from the perspective of the patient, their families and the doctors, police and judges who would all act as guardians of those thought to have gone insane.

This thesis questions some of the assumptions, implicit in the existing literature, regarding class-based and gendered mourning, and argues that an acceptance of ‘the war’ as a distinct cause of mental illness was one of the realities of life within the walls of the public asylum.

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