Dr. Catharina Th. Bakker

Freelance medical historian and publicist, also a Member of the Board of Stichting Zuster Vernède, Haarlem, The Netherlands


Suicide through the eyes of fellow patients

In her novel UP! (2015), the Dutch writer Myrthe van der Meer described the experiences of Emma (a personification of the writer herself) as a patient in a mental institution. It was the second book about her experiences as a psychiatric patient. (The first account, PAAZ, came out in 2014.) In Up! Emma is anxious because one of her fellow patients develops suicidal thoughts and eventually (almost) attempts to take her own life by taking some pills a nurse had accidently left behind. Emma herself also suffers from serious suicidal thoughts.

Almost 100 years before, in 1927, Fré Dommisse debuted with Krankzinnigen (Lunatics) –  an autobiographical account of her own psychiatric past. Dommisse told how the main character Dé (indeed also a personification of the writer herself) lay awake at night because she was afraid that her suicidal fellow patient would commit suicide. As long as she heard her breathing, everything was still fine. Dé too developed serious suicidal thoughts and eventually even attempted to commit suicide.

Two stories – in a span of almost 100 years – of former female patients on their own experiences in a psychiatric facility, and in both cases the same theme came up: suicidal fellow patients. Both stories are told in novel form. At first glance the similarities in both experiences are stunning. Yet the setting of both stories is completely different.

In the lecture Suicide through the eyes of (fellow) patients, I investigate this, focusing on the similarities and differences between those two (and hopefully more –  if I’ll find them) stories. How (in what language) did these writers write about suicide? Did they use different words for themselves and their fellow patient(s)? What did their fellow patient’s suicide attempt mean to the writers? How did the nurse they witnessed react to the attempt(s)? And what could this mean –  against the background of changes in institutional mental health in the Netherlands?


Born in 1964 on the island Texel – Netherlands, Catharina Th. Bakker studied history at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (Amsterdam University) and got her PhD-degree in 2009. Her main topics are medical history, history of nursing and mental health.

Relevant publications

2020. The King’s Court Physician. (De lijfarts van de koning. Het avontuurlijke leven van Franz Joseph Harbaur, 1776-1824).

2015. Sisters in Care (Zusters in de zorg. Een geschiedenis van de Franciscanessen van Charitas – in cooperation with late dr. George van Overbeeke)

2009. Mental Health Money (Geld voor GGZ. De financiering van de geestelijke gezondheidszorg en de invloed van geld op de zorgpraktijk (1884-1984)). (PhD-thesis)

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