Psychiatric institutionalization, femininity, and women’s care giving in Poland

by Agnieszka Doll

Mental illness is often associated with notions of irrationality, unpredictability, and the imaginary threat of violence or possible negligence. For women who have been institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, the stigma placed upon them takes on a polymorphous status as “mad” and “bad,” directly interfering with normative regimes of femininity. Particularly in societies like Poland with a traditional patriarchal gender order, these women may be seen as “unfit” mothers and “troublesome” wives, disruptive to the “normal” functioning of their families. The cultural script of Polish women as mothers and the primary care-givers cuts across class, profession, and place (Czerwinska, A., Lapniewska, Z., and Piotrowska, J., 2010) .Yet, for women with histories of psychiatric hospitalization, those care giving roles are denied. The Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) in 2008 and 2012 conducted surveys which show constant agreement among respondents that women with mental illness and previous hospitalization – regardless of the details of their individual prognoses – should be excluded from care taking duties for minors. This impacts both their private and professional lives as, for example, they may be denied employment as nannies or teachers. Even though the survey did not ask whether respondents perceived previously hospitalized women to be “fit” mothers, it illuminated the extent to which stigma of mental illness and institutionalization bears on women’s ability to fulfil societally assigned gender roles. Given that, women with histories of psychiatric hospitalization may experience difficulties in winning custody of their children in family law cases, for instance. When they manage to gain or uphold custody in such cases, to resist future hospitalization and to uphold their care-giving responsibilities they may need to drastically change their daily lives in an attempt to provide “proof” of their sanity (interpreted as orthodox compliance with gender norms) to state agencies, professionals or broader society. Thus, psychiatric examination and classification, particularly when imposed on women who are committed unwillingly, can function as a form of societal and institutional surveillance.

In spite of these serious implications, the process of admission to psychiatric facilities remains under-analysed. Current scholarship generally revolves around the need to find a balance between respect for personal liberties and the state’s right to protect the public from “dangerous” and “mentally ill” individuals. As well, it focuses on the negotiation of treatment needs and legal standards of due process within the context of admission. My doctoral research, designed as an institutional ethnographic study (D. Smith, 2006), aims to explore the procedure of involuntary psychiatric institutionalization of women in Poland, particularly its social organization. This is to gain a broader understanding of how knowledge about women as “pathological” subjects is produced within the process of psychiatric admission, and how this knowledge production occurring in local sites is organized and coordinated by ideological discourses, texts, and the features of organizational contexts. One of the project’s aims is to disrupt the mega-narrative of the official and “authoritative” accounts of psychiatric and legal professionals produced in involuntary admission processes that silence women’s voices and experiences. It is hoped that by illuminating how accounts of “pathological” women are produced within everyday institutional practices the notion of institutionalized women as “mad” and “bad” would be problematized.


Czerwinska, A., Lapniewska, Z., & Piotrowska, J. (2010). Kobiety na “zielonej wyspie”: Kryzys w Polsce z perspektywy gender. Warszawa: Fundacja Feminoteka.

Omyla-Rudzka, M. (2012). Stosunek do chorych psychicznie. Warszawa: Fundacja Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej.

Smith, D. (2006). Institutional ethnography as practice. Lanham, Md.: Rowman &n Littlefield.

Wciorka, B., & Wciorka, J. (2008). Osoby chore psychicznie w spolecznstwie: Komunikat z badan. Warszawa: Fundacja Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej.

Agnieszka Doll is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Victoria in Canada. Currently she is a Visiting Doctoral Fellow at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology, University of Bielefled in Germany.