Mental Health in Archaeology

Posted on April 20, 2016


Mental Health; the final taboo? Approximately one in four people suffers from depression or anxiety at some point in their lives, many of whom go untreated or struggle through their careers with no real understanding of what it is that affects them. Symptoms are varied and seem to wax and wane but rarely disappear permanently, instead reappearing at times of heightened stress. To make matters worse there are often no visible signs of suffering as are present in better understood illness. Depression and anxiety are only two of a vast range of mental health issues and yet it is one of the only remaining taboo subjects which affects so many. Academia is widely regarded as a highly stressful environment in itself but when considered within the context of our multi-faceted discipline, archaeology stands to gain the most from an open and honest appraisal of this subject matter. Approximately 53 percent of UK academic staff have at some point in their careers suffered from depression and/or anxiety (Kinman 1998: 13) caused by increasing stress levels. (Kinman and Wrail 2013: 3 and Shaw and Ward 2014), though there is a general paucity of data available. Recently two articles were published in the Times Higher Education as to whether or not one should hide mental health conditions in academia. The arguments on both sides are poignant; being open to asking for help from colleagues and superiors to create better understanding and appreciation or to hide the issues that are present to prevent repercussions from colleagues that do not understand the complexity of the conditions. A recent survey published by The Guardian has shown that people who told their superiors had been offered help in various ways (Thomas 2014). Furthermore, the survey reveals that more than half of those surveyed still keep their mental illness hidden from colleagues and even more so from superiors (Thomas 2014). The question arises that if in archaeology the same problems exist as they do elsewhere in society, is understanding mental health issues even more important given the unique challenges of our discipline? From research through to excavation mental health issues can be difficult to deal with both as someone with the conditions as for those working alongside them and no one of these situations come without risk. Many people in academia appear to be understandably afraid of presenting themselves as having mental health problems lest it impact their career, yet with so many people suffering from these conditions we want to examine this critical topic in an open session. We ask: why not rid ourselves of the awkwardness of disassociation with mental health and unite across our disciplines to engender discussion and to further the professions to which we are all responsible? This session seeks to answer some of these questions and discuss if there are possibilities to improve the situation and also to see if there is a general opinion given the experience of people with mental health in archaeology about openness with mental health issues. We invite everyone regardless of personal experience to discuss these and related issues. The discussion panel is planned to include the introductory speaker, a mental health professional with a deeper insight into mental health issues and several member of academic and commercial archaeology staff that represent the professional side of archaeology and the employer’s perspective.

Kinman, G. (1998) Pressure points: A survey into the causes and consequences of
occupational stress in UK academic and related staff. (London 1998).
Kinman, G. and Wrail, S. (2013) Higher stress. A survey of stress and well-being among staff in higher education.
Shaw, C. and Ward, L. (2014) Dark thoughts: Why mental illness is on the rise in academia at growing-problem-pressure-university. Accessed on 22/05/2015, 13.27 GMT.
Thomas, K. (2014) We don’t want anyone to know, say depressed academics at health-suffering-silence-guardian-survey. Accessed on 22/05/2015, 13.43 GMT.
Unknown Author (2015) Mental illness: Shedding light on the darkness“ at the-darkness/2018979.article Accessed on 18/05/2015, 15:32GMT.
Unknown Author (2015) “Mental Illness: I keep Mine Hidden” at article Accessed on 19/05/2015, 18:17GMT

Session organisers: Sarah BOCKMEYER and Lewis COLAU


Myth, materiality and mental health

Archaeologists are familiar with the idea of objects with biographies, and the concept that the materiality of things helps in the construction of meaningful assemblages. I would like to take these ideas further and explore how objects, documents and places help to construct the narratives of an individual in the present day. I wish in this paper to explore what an archaeology of the self might consist of and how such an archaeology might help people who have for a number of reasons partial amnesia(s). Memory loss and dysfunction plays an important role in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be diagnosed for many reasons but it is particularly severe for those who have survived intense life threatening trauma. For people with this illness, while parts of their memory will be bright and vivid other parts may have lacunae; there may be partial amnesia either organic or psychological in nature. I will argue that objects, documents and photos assist the process of therapy in several ways. They can help bridge memory loss either by stimulating the recovery of lost or buried memories, or by filling in details lost to time or to amnesia. Secondly, the process of therapy often involves grounding. Grounding is important within the healing process in two ways firstly it is a means for patients to bring themselves out of the more disturbing aspects of their illness when they occur and secondly in therapy it is a way of returning to normality after revisiting traumatic events. Grounding can take several forms but physical contact with significant objects has an important role to play in this process. This paper is a reflective piece on the role materiality and the archaeology of the self played and continues to play in the treatment of my own PTSD.

Andrew HOAEN (University of Worcester)

Are you OK? An exploration of suffering during archaeological fieldwork

The relations between Archaeology and Health remain a hidden topic which have not received any attention from Academia. This paper seeks to shed light on this problem through the analysis of three issues. The first one is a preliminary exploration of why archaeological reflexivity, which has paid attention to matters of power, class or gender, among others, has ignored the mental and emotional health of researchers. In contrast it is shown how Anthropology has dealt with this problem in a different way, acknowledging it as an important element to consider in the production of ethnographic knowledge. The second issue is the analysis, in an ethnographic key, of various case studies showing the importance of a very frequent phenomenon during archaeological fieldwork: suffering. The third and final one is a short review of a few mechanisms that might prove helpful when coping with suffering during fieldwork, with the intent of fostering an open and interdisciplinary debate regarding how to face this important problem in the production of archaeological knowledge.
Guillermo DIAZ DE LIAŇO DEL VALLE (Brunel University of London)

An out of the box perspective on archaeology and heritage as contributors to dementia care in Europe

Dementia is prevalent among the elderly population of Europe, and cases of dementia are expected to increase rapidly in the coming years. While dementia has severe psychological impact and social consequences for individuals, it has notably been studied from a neuromedical viewpoint. The psycho-social implications of the syndrome and consequences for wellbeing and quality of life are topics that have begun to emerge only in the previous two decades. An involvement of disciplines other than those stemming from the neurological and medical fields can enrich the way dementia and its effects on the wellbeing of individuals are handled. This paper argues that in this light, archaeology can potentially make a valuable contribution to European dementia care. It sets out a theoretical argument that builds on previous initiatives involving archaeology and heritage in a health care context. The argument I present highlights specific characteristics of archaeology that make it suitable for such an involvement. I conclude that engaging in archaeology-based activities could be beneficial for the wellbeing of people with dementia.

Lilla VONK (Universiteit Leiden)

Inclusion and therapy: archaeology and heritage for people with mental health problems and/or autism

Whilst completing a PhD relating to inclusion in heritage I have been working with people diagnosed as autistic and with people experiencing mental health problems. I have worked on projects which use archaeological fieldwork as an occupational therapy for people with mental health problems and/or autism. I am also interested in how the management, presentation and organisation of heritage attractions may serve to exclude these people and what changes might promote inclusion. This paper, therefore explains how Mind Aberystwyth members have experienced opportunities to work on archaeological digs in Wales and what difficulties the focus demographic have found accessing heritage and how these difficulties can be overcome. Having learned of therapeutic archaeology projects including Mind Herefordshire’s ‘Past in Mind’ project and the Defence Archaeology Group’s Operation Nightingale, and with the encouragement Fiona Aldred (chief executive of Mind Aberystwyth) I took members on archaeological digs in 2014 and 2015. I shall explain how participants found their experience and the benefits they gained from it. I shall then question how the designers and managers of heritage attractions in the UK have succeeded or failed in the ethical imperative (championed by John Carman, Emma Wateron, Laurajane Smith and others) with regards to those affected by autism and mental health problems. One colleague has told me of problems he experienced taking his autistic daughter to Stonehenge. However I can also point to at least one voluntary organisation in the heritage sector which has demonstrated great success in supporting and encouraging self-esteem and coping strategies for members affected by mental health and autistic spectrum conditions. This paper seeks to show that archaeology and heritage have a valuable role to play in promoting inclusion of and participation by people on the autistic spectrum and affected by poor mental health and to encourage further research in order for this role to be fulfilled.
William RATHOUSE (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

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