Med Humanities 34:57-58 doi:10.1136/jmh.2008.001123
  • Editorial

Lessons in pity and caring from Dickens and Melville

  1. Deborah Kirklin
  1. Dr D Kirklin, Department of Primary Care and Population Sciences, Royal Free and University College Medical School, Archway Campus, Holborn Union Building, 2–10 Highgate Hill, London N19 5LW, UK; d.kirklin{at}

    Suffering, grief, and marginalisation are just a few of the human experiences closely observed by authors in this issue of Medical Humanities. None of these are easy to endure or to witness, and yet the latter is exactly what these scholars have chosen to do. Using, among others, the prisms of literary studies, social history, and film and television studies, they ponder the role of healthcare practitioners—for good or for bad—in responding to what Barker and Buchanan-Barker term “problems in human living” (see page 110).1 According to Barker and Buchanan-Barker, as a society and as healthcare professionals, we have lost sight of what is required of us in the face of human suffering. When an individual is no longer able to cope psychologically with the challenges life offers, we no longer understand “what exactly are we called to do as people—whether as professionals, friends or fellow travellers”.1

    Rather than focusing resources and energy on simply containing or attempting to control those affected in this way, they suggest instead that the primary concern should be to help people to address and live with these problems. This proposed reframing of what is currently known as mental illness echoes the reframing of disability as a social rather than a medical concern, reminding us that “people need to be agents rather than patients”.1 Caring for people rather than controlling them will, they suggest, take courage—courage that Barker and Buchanan-Barker find sadly missing in their own profession of psychiatric nursing. Instead, they judge it to be intoxicated with the narcissistic allure of academic success and driven by political and economic imperatives. This apparently harsh evaluation has implications far beyond nursing, challenging society as a whole to answer the charge that fear—and not a desire to care—dominates the provision …

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