Mental Health, Anthropology and Witchcraft: Roehampton Open Minds Sessions

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Megan Jackson, MA Undergraduate, University of Roehampton

Ever wonder what fascinating topics preoccupy the brilliant minds of leading academics? Our partner, University of Roehampton, a hub of international research, gave us an insight into some of their specialist subjects.

Time for Radical Reform: Healing Our Mental Health Crisis

Dr James Davis is a Reader in social anthropology and mental health, teaching in the Departments of Life Sciences and Psychology. He believes the way mental health is discussed, defined and treated, through a medical lens, is problematic.

James says: “The over-medicalisation of our emotional lives has fueled an epidemic of psychiatric drug prescribing.” He believes this is the wrong approach because “it has led to the over-medicalisation of non-pathological human responses to the conditions of living.

“We have turned more and more of our natural, all be it painful experiences, and problems of living, into psychiatric conditions that often at times require some kind of pharmaceutical intervention. So in effect by reclassifying painful normality as psychiatric abnormality we have created the illusion of a psychiatric epidemic.”

Thinking Anthropomorphically About Cigarette Packets

Professor of Social Anthropology, Kirsten Bell has conducted research into smokers’ relationship with their cigarette packets. Over five years she interviewed smokers on the street, she wanted to find out if they engaged with the visual and textual warning labels. “People paid a lot less attention to what was on their cigarette packet than we expected, regardless of what their cigarette packet had on it” she said.

Kirsten says this prompted her to look at cigarette packets as physical containers, and how this impacts smokers’ relationship with them, rather than just focusing on how they look. She has spent the last few years trawling through tobacconist archives to understand the importance of the packet’s physicality. She found that the shape and size of cigarette packets is not only important to smokers, but to tobacco companies also.

She explained: “We forget that cigarettes have a very delicate constitution. Cigarettes are very fragile, easily crushed, and highly susceptible to changes in temperature and moisture. So in fact the packet plays an incredibly powerful role in ensuring that cigarettes make it into the hands of smokers intact.”

In recent years cigarette packets have become the focus of tobacco legislation. The minimum amount of cigarettes per pack, the branding of the packet, and the size of textual and visual deterrents, have become the main focus of governments and campaign groups trying to make smoking as unattractive as possible. But Kirsten says this isn’t enough: “We haven’t thought enough about the packet as a physical container because it’s so obvious, and so self-evident- it becomes invisible […] maybe we need to be thinking of packets as physical objects, in terms of their relationship with smoking as well as their visual attributes.”


Historian and TV presenter, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb specialises in sixteenth-century England and France. Her talk mapped out the historical context that led to so many being persecuted, prosecuted and executed for witchcraft from 1450 to 1750.

Suzannah argues that the Reformation, a time when people truly believed they “were living in the end days, and this put the devil at the forefront of their mind”, exaggerated society’s belief in witches.

She says: “It created a kind of tribal mentality where things were either good or bad, and so what we have is a period in which these beliefs are being adopted throughout society. Not only ordinary people thought the devil was at work. Elites, educated elites did as well and they were encouraged to do so by books such as the Malleus Maleficarum.”

This elite belief in witches says Suzannah, led to witchcraft being made treasonous by law, which led to the prosecutions and executions. “To understand this we need to think about neighborhood relations in a time of uncertainty, this is a time in which conditions were changing” she says. This was a time when the population dramatically increased, harvests regularly failed, and suspicion was rampant.

Suzannah explains how something as simple as a neighbourhood squabble or someone falling ill was enough to alert suspicion. She recalls the story of Ella Garrison, an elderly woman who went to her neighbour, Robert Parsons to ask for help. “Garrison was turned away and soon after this their 7 years old and their 6-month-old both got ill and died, within three weeks. This is a age of high infant mortality rates but they blamed the deaths on Ella because of the recent altercation.”

Suzannah’s research shows that there is no one reason why 90,000 people, mainly women, were prosecuted for witchcraft. She says: “There was a kind of perfect storm of credulity, of conditions, of criminality and of misogyny and of ideas that produced fear and uncertainty and of course, from time to time, torture.”