Sophomore Seminars

The Changing Face of Mental Illness in Women: Historical, Medical and Artistic Approaches


In this seminar we want to take a look at women’s lives, beginning in the past century to the present, and the many changes that occurred in conceptualizing and understanding mental illness. The female reproductive system has been linked to mental illness in women for centuries. The womb was believed to be the source of anxiety and depression, leading women to become ‘hysterical.’ But what does ‘hysteria’ really mean, and how have historical and cultural attitudes towards women framed the study of women's mental health?  How have the expectations of and demands on women and their role in society changed from the 19th to the 20th century? How have advances in health care and changing economic conditions influenced women’s health?

The course will introduce students to historical and current concepts of mental illness in women. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMS), eating disorders, the hysterias and functional neurologic disorders and infertility and postpartum depression will be analyzed through a historical bio-psycho-social lens. Historical reading will include primary sources, such as women’s diaries and physicians’ casebooks and medical case records, as well as secondary sources such as advice books, and 19th- and 20th-century medical texts. Importantly, we will examine the changing face of "mental illness in women" in art, literature and medicinethe evolution of diversity in represented voices and the current methods of researching and treating the interface between the female reproductive cycle and psychiatric illness in diverse populations of women.

Guest speakers from the art history and literature departments will stimulate dialogue regarding literary and artistic images and the social and cultural contexts of these disorders. Break-out sessions within each lecture provide opportunities for students to ask questions and to discuss a topic in greater depth. Students will have the opportunity to complete their own interdisciplinary projects for the course. Prior projects have included not only slideshow presentations of diverse topics, but also short films and stories, and proposals for future research into women's mental health.


Meet the Instructor(s)

Regina Casper

"This course on The Changing Face of ‘Mental Illness’ in Women draws on my experience and work in the Women’s Wellness Clinic in the Department of Psychiatry. My wish to become a doctor settled early in my mind, when I was about 5 years old, as I watched my father, a family physician, treat patients on Sundays. By contrast, my concentration on caring primarily for women in their reproductive years was a late development after years of research and treatment of affective disorders and eating disorders. Our Women’s Wellness Clinic in the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford was created in response to a call for help by a woman who chaired the Gynecology/Obstetrics Department. Her concern were the young women in the Gynecology clinic, who were struggling with the demands of daily life, with pregnancy and/or with motherhood. Over 22 years later, the Women’s Clinic in the Department remains fully functioning and popular, now under Dr. Williams’ leadership. The first babies we saw with their mothers in the early years have now finished college, some at Stanford University."

Katherine Williams

I am a clinical psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and Director of the Women's Wellness Clinic, a specialty clinic that focuses on the intersection of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry. I graduated from Stanford University with a degree in psychology, and completed my thesis on an investigation of the sexually dimorphic behavior in squirrel monkeys. This undergraduate opportunity began my path to exploring the question of whether female hormones affect mood in women. However, one day, while studying for the MCAT in Meyer Library (now replaced by Meyer Green), and weary from memorization, I looked up and saw a book Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 1535-1860, by Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine. Intrigued, I stumbled upon Thomas Syndeham 's description of "The Hysteric Passion," and his assertion that "Of all the chronic diseases, Hysteria, unless I err, is the commonest...being one half the human race is women." This chance encounter fascinated and disturbed me: how was hysteria defined? How did the social expectations of women at the time interact with the definition of the disorder and the propagation of the idea that women are inherently mentally ill? Since that day in Meyer, I have been devoted to the study and practice of the intersection of obstetrics and gynecology and neuroendocrinology and women's mental health. When I'm not treating patients, I continue to pursue research on the history of mental illness in women, and I teach medical students and residents about the modern evaluation and treatment of reproductive cycle-related psychiatric illness.