From ‘The Red Handbook’ to ‘The Art and Science of Mental Health Nursing’

Unbidden, but very welcome nonetheless, a freshly pressed copy of the third edition of Ian Norman and Iain Ryrie’s edited The Art and Science of Mental Health Nursing: a Textbook of Principles and Practice has arrived on my desk. This is a mighty tome indeed, and this latest version promises to cement the book’s status as a ‘must have’ for pre-registration students of mental health nursing.

A rather earlier text I also have a copy of is The Handbook for Attendants on the Insane, which Peter Nolan tells us was first published in 1885. This was the first book produced in the UK for the express purpose of instructing people we now uniformly call mental health nurses, and was produced at the instigation of the Medico-Psychological Association (MPA). The MPA later became the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, and eventually the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

No sooner had the Red Handbook (as it was often referred to) appeared than questions were being asked about the wisdom of educating attendants. This is a point Henry Rollin makes in this paper marking the centenary of the Handbook’s publication. In this extract, Rollin quotes from an (unnamed) reviewer writing in the Journal of Mental Science (now the British Journal of Psychiatry) in the year the Handbook went to print:

“We are not quite sure ourselves whether it is necessary or wise to attempt to convey instructions in physiology, etc., to ordinary attendants. Will they be the better equipped for their duties for being told that the brain consists of grey and white matter and cement substance?”, writes the anonymous reviewer. He adjusts his elegant pince-nez and continues, “We hardly see what is to be gained by superficial knowledge of this kind”.

Goodness knows what this anonymous reviewer would have made of Norman and Ryrie’s 728 pages of analysis, guidance and instruction, let alone the idea that mental health nurses now have to complete an undergraduate degree in order to register and practice.


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