Accommodation and resistance to the dominant cultural discourse on psychiatric mental health: oral history accounts of family members

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Oral history makes a critical contribution in articulating the perspectives of people often overlooked in histories written from the standpoint of dominating class, gender, ethnic or professional groups. Using three interrelated approaches — life stories, oral history, and narrative analysis — this paper analyzes family responses to psychiatric care and mental illness in oral history interviews with family members who experienced mental illness themselves or within their family between 1930 and 1975. Interviews with three family members in Alberta, Canada are the primary focus. These stories provide an important avenue to understand the meaning and transformations of mental health-care from the point of view of families. Family members' stories reveal contradictory responses to the dominant cultural discourse. Using a performative framework of interpretation, the narratives reveal a complex interplay between medical, social and cultural conceptions of mental illness, deepening our understanding of its meaning. The history of mental health-care can be substantially enriched by the analysis of family members' stories, not only revealing the constructed nature of mental illness, but also illustrating the family as a mediating context in which the meaning of mental illness is negotiated.

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