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A Conversation Through Space and Time by Lucy Porte

In an extensive discussion with medical sociologist Professor Dawn Edge and historian of psychology Doctor Emma Sutton, we delve into the ways that we can learn from different cultures and eras to devise a health system that works better for all.

“It’s like we’ve gone back in time” — Doctor Sutton.

Historians love their leading questions. One good example at the moment might be: “are we living in good times or hard times?” As a cultural historian, Doctor Sutton has the privilege of being able to dip into the otherwise secret lives of others and can begin to unravel the timeline of human emotions to help us find the answer.

“Death and illness used to be much nearer” — Doctor Sutton.

It is interesting to think about how changes in healthcare have affected people and their bodies over the years, especially during a pandemic which seems to break down the barriers of time and space themselves, reconnecting us to past times when sickness was ever-present. Doctor Sutton says it is as if the “safety blanket” of Western medicine has fallen down, with previously dependable measures such as vaccines no longer holding up. Professor Dawn Edge agrees, saying this pandemic has “levelled the playing field” geographically too. That is to say, some countries that we can sometimes look down on have so far achieved superior outcomes to ones we see as more advanced (you only need to glance at the statistics for African countries vs those in Europe or North America to see an immediate disparity).

If people’s perceptions of physical health have developed over time, our understanding of mental health has practically transfigured. Thirty years ago, when some of today’s doctors trained, psychology was a field centred mainly on schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar disorder, and other forms of psychosis. Now, we’re as likely to talk about mental health as mental illness, and self-esteem has become as important as self-discipline. We may be a long way from Victorian ideas of service and sacrifice, but even in living memory there’s been a decline in British stoicism and softening of our grandparents’ stiff upper lips.

Are these changes in understanding and expectation of behaviour a weakness or a strength? How well placed are we for disaster now, with advanced technology and pharmaceuticals but a strong feeling of security and entitlement towards the magical medicines we get delivered at sci-fi speeds?

A Conversation Through Space and Time by Lucy Porte, Artwork by Hanna Gwynn

“[We need to ask ourselves:] how do we help young people build resilience?” says Professor Edge, and we tentatively discuss how this might be achieved. In times where national services like CAMHS are stretched by misinformed referrals, leading to disappointment for families and increased stress for people further down the list, maybe we should start by looking at the increased pathologisation of reactions to common familial struggles, such as death or parental separation.

This point, raised by one of my fellow interviewers, instantly reminds me of a book my mum gave me called The School of Life which asks: with the whirlwind of issues human beings have to put up with, what reason is there really to be sane? Perhaps this revelation could lead to a new era of mental health understanding where we combine the resilience of the past with the realism of today to make a healthcare system that can truly keep up with our times.

Illness casts a dark net over the world which covers borders. Maybe we could do well to look across these apparent partitions in time and space and think about how the people before us would have responded to similar problems, or how those in other cultures do, in absence of all the aids and infrastructure we know now. I hear the phrase “There is no future in the past” thrown around quite a lot, implying there’s little point in looking to the past for answers to modern problems. But I think I prefer this motto from Sapienza University of Rome: Il futuro è passato qui — “The future has already been here”.