Sophomore Seminars

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

Please note: PSYC 111Q will not be co-instructed in Winter 2022. Dr. Regina Casper will be teaching the seminar solo.

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. The first babies we saw with their mothers in the early years have now finished college, some at Stanford University."