Between Emotional Involvement and Professional Detachment: The Challenges of Nursing in Dutch Mental Institutions (1880-1980)

Harry Oosterhuis*, Cecile Aan de Stegge

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article is about the tension and changing balance between emotional involvement and professional detachment in the practice of nursing in Dutch mental institutions between the 1880s and 1990s. We address this issue in relation to institutional and material conditions, power differences between doctors, nurses and patients, different treatments, and the social marginalisation of hospitalised patients. On the basis of various sources (nursing textbooks, chronicles of skills learning by students, personal accounts, questionnaires and interviews), we describe how nurses were supposed to interact with patients and how they dealt with three sensitive issues: the need to use coercion in response to agitated patients, the sexual behaviour of patients and the risk of suicide in psychiatric institutions. We argue that nursing mental patients required a great deal of emotional work and that there was a shift from strict rules of behaviour imposed from above to more flexible self-regulation, guided by self-reflection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1277-1296
Number of pages20
JournalSocial History of Medicine
Issue number4
Early online dateFeb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


  • Dutch psychiatry
  • mental nursing
  • emotional work
  • coercion
  • sexuality
  • suicide

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