Mental health nurses have played a central role in the support of mental health services. However this has not been as clearly recognised within the history of mental health as that of psychiatrists. The practice of mental health nursing has changed throughout history, shaped by both the changes in medicine and by the aim to meet the practical needs of those identified as disordered. The History of Mental Health Nursing Timeline has been developed by the RCN Mental Health Forum and the RCN History of Nursing Society. It explores the nature of the role of the mental health nurse through objects from Glenside Hospital Museum.
The objects in each section show how the discipline of mental health nursing has responded to changes in the requirements of education, treatment, the care environment and legislation. These objects are symbolic of a history that has both kept order among and cared for patients, therefore representing aspects of nursing history which are not all pleasant and comfortable. Underpinning this exploration is the tension which has existed (and still exists) within mental health nursing, namely the boundary between ‘care’ and ‘control’. Through understanding the practices which have come before, we can begin to gain a fuller understanding of the role of the mental health nurse today.
Although we use the term ‘mental health nurse’ and ‘psychiatric nurse’ interchangeably today, nurses working within mental health have worked under a number of names. In the 18th and 19th century the term ‘keeper’ was used, however this seemed to imply the nurse’s role was one of control and restriction. After the opening of the asylum system in 1845 the term ‘attendant’ was used. This could indicate a more humanitarian approach to care. By the end of the 19th century the term ‘nurse’ was preferred which shows a shift from viewing nurses as domestic servants towards a developing profession.