Medical Humanities Award 2020: archival adventures that Change Minds

In this new mini-series, we meet the winners of the AHRC Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Awards 2020 as they share their winning projects. In our fourth post, we hear from Laura Drysdale, Director of the Restoration Trust and project manager for Change Minds, which won the Best Community Research Award. Change Minds engages people with mental health challenges in a transformative co-created archival adventure by supporting them to learn research skills and investigate patient records from 19th-century asylums.

We were absolutely thrilled to win this award – and I do mean we, because Change Minds, the featured project, is the product of a fruitful partnership between the Restoration Trust and Norfolk Record Office that has been in place since 2015. In fact there was widespread joy in what we’ve started to see as ‘our community’, including the Medical Humanities team at the University of East Anglia who have been core to our wellbeing evaluation research, and through our network of participants, trustees, expert advisory board members, friends and relations. It means a lot to me personally, as a validation of the distinctive way we work in the amorphous space between heritage, creativity and health.

Change Minds uses 19th-century Asylum records for learning and imagination. Over 12+ sessions, people choose a patient to research in the casebooks. They track their lives, explore their experiences imaginatively, and create some kind of public sharing, such as an exhibition or a play. We have had five iterations of the project in Norfolk and, during Covid, Bethlem Museum of the Mind has piloted an online version.  We are developing a UK-wide programme through the Archives for Wellbeing Network funded by the National Archives.

Left: poster from a Change Minds project. Right: creative work produced by project participants.

In 2014 I was working with people who had serious mental health challenges, and I noticed that many clients had interests that Services ignored because they were preoccupied with supporting people’s basic needs. But starting conversations about family history, for example, helps to build relationships with people, and without these relationships you can’t help with the basics. An idea emerged about clients recording oral histories about their experiences of the mental health system. It was something interesting to do, a way to affirm people’s right to a voice, and a contribution to the future.

I had worked in heritage so I knew broadly who to ask and where to go to take the idea forward. It was my great good fortune to meet Gary Tuson, Norfolk County Archivist, who immediately suggested using Norfolk Record Office’s collection of St Andrews Hospital records as a way to link people’s contemporary experiences with local history. We’ve been working together ever since, with fantastic support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Archives are an incredibly rich but underused resource for wellbeing. Largely free to use, often publicly owned, they are available everywhere, both physically and online. Having essentially the same records in different places, as with Asylum records, means you can scale up.  So, a project like Change Minds can be rolled out anywhere. That’s sustainable and cost effective.

Lately, informed by the learning and experience of using these wonderful records, we have been thinking about therapeutic communities, whose origins reside in benign Asylum practices – as seen in 19th-century Norfolk – where there was a sense of therapeutic optimism. The question we are asking ourselves is, can we be a kind of distributed therapeutic community? Could such a community maintain the quality of engagement that is so precious to us? Thanks to winning this amazing award, we feel that we have a better chance of finding the resources to reflect on this question. We can look forward to a more secure future in what will always be a very difficult operating environment for small ambitious charities like the Restoration Trust.

Laura Drysdale, Director of the Restoration Trust

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