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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Keeping Mum


Keeping Mum: psychoanalytical illustrations of depression, suicide and self-harm by Dr James JohnstonPsychoanalytical illustrations of depression, self-harm and suicide

  • The phrase Keeping Mum can be used to mean concealing a secret, hiding something that may be confidential or experienced as shameful:
  • The phrase: ‘mum’s the word’ means ‘say nothing’.
  • The word ‘mumble’ may mean an indistinct utterance, someone or something that is hard to hear.
  • The word mum also means mother in British colloquial use and it is the play on the double use of the word mum, as something secret and hidden, and as mother, that inspired the following psychoanalytic link.
  • The psychoanalytic view of Keeping Mum would include a refusal or inability to relinquish the Oedipal tie with mother.

The Oedipal achievement of accepting the painful reality of exclusion from the parental couple is a crucial part of development. From a psychoanalytic perspective it is the father, the third, who comes to interrupt the Oedipal fusion between the dyad of mother and infant. In the same way the patient and professional couple require a third perspective to help to contain their disturbance.

In psychiatric phenomenology elective mutism, a chosen silence, can be an anxiety provoking state for the psychiatrist who wishes to understand the patient through what they say. The deliberate withholding of information excludes the listener, leaving them feeling excluded or in a disempowered position.

What people say accounts for only a small proportion of their communication: far more is conveyed by non verbal, unspoken communication, in behaviour and in the traces of the unconscious which are like the tracks left by an animal no longer present. The traces of the unspoken unconscious are ephemeral, like footprints in the melting snow. But the traces of the unconscious experience of the other are not seen, but felt in the emotional experience of the observer, who through observing and reflecting on their own feelings, may discern what is hidden from view.

Brick mother

The ‘Brick Mother’ was how the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Henri Rey described the Maudsley hospital. The concrete containment afforded by the bricks and mortar of psychiatric asylum could hardly replace the arms of mother but in some way the poignancy of the inadequacy of the Brick Mother to meet regressive need for such holding is underpinned by the hardness and incongruity of the image. In this sense access to regressive asylum acts as a symbol of Keeping Mum and the route to this expressed through the threat to life posed by depression, self harm and suicide.

The threat to life is both an attack on self and other, the maternal object that is also subject to violence which makes manifest in the body hidden feelings of hatred which threatens to overshadow and destroy the loved object.

Keeping Mum embodies the attempt to hold onto what is lost and at the same time disavow the hatred towards what is lost, so a shadow of what is not mourned is expressed as a grievance which takes the place of grieving.


Mum's the word

The linking concept Keeping Mum is an overarching idea for some of the salient emotional psychoanalytic features which can be traced in depression, in self harm and in suicide.

There are three words I use to describe the counter-transference experience, being disturbed, being reminded and being aware. I think of the neurotic empathic resonance of the patient in the professional as being reminded while the psychotic state of disintegration is more an experience of being disturbed.

Being reminded


Being disturbed


Being aware


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