Writing the recent history of mental health services requires a conscious departure from the historiographical tropes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which have emphasised the experience of those identified (and legally defined) as lunatics and the social, cultural, political, medical and institutional context of their treatment. A historical narrative structured around rights (to health and liberty) is now complicated by the rise of new organising categories such as ‘costs’, ‘risks’, ‘needs’ and ‘values’. This paper, drawing on insights from a series of witness seminars attended by historians, clinicians and policymakers, proposes a programme of research to place modern mental health services in England and Wales in a richer historical context. Historians should recognise the fragmentation of the concepts of mental illness and mental health need, acknowledge the relationship between critiques of psychiatry and developments in other intellectual spheres, place the experience of the service user in the context of wider socio-economic and political change, understand the impacts of the social perception of ‘risk’ and of moral panic on mental health policy, relate the politics of mental health policy and resources to the general determinants of institutional change in British central and local government, and explore the sociological and institutional complexity of the evolving mental health professions and their relationships with each other and with their clients. While this is no small challenge, it is perhaps the only way to avoid the perpetuation of ‘single-issue mythologies’ in describing and accounting for change.