Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 112–130 | Cite as

Attachment, Mothering and Mental Illness: Mother–Infant Therapy in an Institutional Context

  • Sonia Masciantonio
  • Susan R. HemerEmail author
  • Anna Chur-Hansen
Original Paper


This paper is an ethnographic exploration of how attachment theory underpins therapeutic practices in an Australian institutional context where mothers of infants have been diagnosed and are undergoing treatment for mental illness. We argue that attachment theory in this particular context rests on a series of principles or assumptions: that attachment theory is universally applicable; that attachment is dyadic and gendered; that there is an attachment template formed which can be transferred across generations and shapes future social interactions; that there is understood to be a mental health risk to the infant when attachment is characterised as problematic; and that this risk can be mitigated through the therapeutic practices advocated by the institution. Through an in-depth case study, this paper demonstrates how these assumptions cohere in practice and are used to assess mothering as deficient, to choose therapeutic options, to shape women’s behaviour, and to formulate decisions about child placement.


Attachment theory Ethnography Mothering Mental illness Postnatal depression Psychotherapy 



Research was funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship. The authors would like to acknowledge the Oliveto institution which allowed access for the research to be conducted. They would also like to thank the staff and patients who generously shared their knowledge and experiences with the researchers.


There was no grant money funding this study. Author Masciantonio had an Australian Postgraduate Award (Australian Federal Government) for the duration of her doctoral study.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Masciantonio, Hemer, and Chur-Hansen declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the following institutions: University of Adelaide Human Research Ethics Committee Project number H-092-2008. Child Youth and Women’s Health Service in 2008, Research Approval Number: 2098, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology & Development StudiesUniversity of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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