“I felt completely filled up with ideas” NNMHR Congress 2018

Mary Coaten reviews the second congress of the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research (NNMHR), 20th and 21st September 2018, hosted by The University of Leeds.

As a PhD student at Durham University, working on Dance Movement Psychotherapy in acute adult mental health, I was particularly excited about the possibilities for making new connections in medical humanities.

The conference was powerfully ignited by Esther Jones’ paper on medical ethics, race, and gender, which she radically ‘(re) Imagined’ through black women’s speculative fiction. Using examples of work by Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson, Jones invited us to ask ourselves the question, ‘What is it that I don’t know that I think I already know, and how will this text help me to know it differently?’ She asked us to unsettle our habits of mind and find texts that shift us and make us pause to think. This unsettling and re-evaluating is particularly important for interrogating and acting across perceived differences, and imagining different ethical possibilities and relations. This keynote brilliantly set the tone for the rest of the conference.

Annamaria Carusi discussed the complexities of care and AI

For me, the two standout panels were on futures of care and mental health. Anna Maria Carusi spoke about the use of artificial intelligence in care. AI cannot care, but the central question is how does it fit into the care environment which involves complex human interactions that are not necessarily linear or predictable in nature? She also interrogated the ethical implications of incorporating AI into systems of care and how this impacts the design of AI. As a researcher and clinician, I was particularly struck by Matt Colbeck’s paper on the disparity between representations of coma in fiction, and the realities of lived experience. This interested me about the purpose fiction might serve, or the message conveyed in describing it in that way when the reality is clearly so different. This panel prompted an animated discussion on subjects ranging from coma fiction, to robot psychiatrists, to supporting women’s mental health, and even resulted in us creating a mini research group!

Writing Back Leeds’ stall at the market place, showcasing letters from their project that matches up undergraduate students with older Yorkshire residents @writing_back

Following the day’s presentations, discussion continued in the research market place, which offered an opportunity to view displays from various organisations and projects e.g. Literary Voices/Hearing the Voice project from Durham University recently featured at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. A group of us engaged in a lively discussion with Victoria Hume, Director of the new Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance who was launching the ‘Manifesto for Culture Health and Wellbeing’ (watch this space!).

The diverse nature of the papers, subjects covered and the varied backgrounds of the participants was so stimulating, that I felt completely filled up with ideas following many intensely interesting conversations, and the welcoming atmosphere of the conference afforded many opportunities for networking that I am confident will bear fruit in the future. For me, this was a particularly important and memorable conference on many levels and I very much look forward to next year’s congress. I am grateful to the funders of the Congress, Wellcome Trust and Leeds University for sponsoring my attendance.


Mary Coaten is a dance movement psychotherapist within the NHS and PhD student at Durham University. Her research investigates embodied approaches to psychosis within the acute mental health setting. She is on Twitter @CoatenMary


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