Jess Ripper, history teacher and Head of Politics at St Francis’ College in Hertfordshire
Mental Health Awareness Week provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on how we address the topic of mental health in schools. This year’s theme, as chosen by the Mental Health Foundation, is anxiety; a topical issue when considering recent media coverage. For example, a 2020 Guardian article quoted a recent study that detailed an ‘explosion’ in anxiety in Britain in the last decade. This apparent ‘explosion’ made me consider whether anxiety really was a new issue and how this condition has been perceived throughout history.
The history of anxiety is a long and convoluted one. The collective symptoms of anxiety have been given various names and diagnoses throughout history, and different attempts have been made to categorise and treat these conditions. Between these different guises, there have been long periods of silence, illustrating when society has not dealt with the issue of mental illness at all.
To begin with, it was Greek and Latin physicians that distinguished anxiety from other mental disorders. In fact, the precursor of cognitive treatment to relieve these symptoms has its origins in this period.
After this era, however, there was a very long period where anxiety as an illness seems to disappear from written records. Then in 1621, Burton’s work on The Anatomy of Melancholy discussed the history of ‘melancholy’ and categorised many of the symptoms that we now understand to be associated with depression and anxiety. Still, large gaps in knowledge and prejudices incentivised a range of other attempts to explain these symptoms.
Focussing on women and anxiety, many witchcraft accusations centred on physical manifestations of anxiety without apparent cause and the ability to predict bad things; arguably two routine symptoms of this condition.
In the 19th century, some soldiers in the American Civil War were diagnosed with “irritable heart” syndrome, characterised by a shortness of breath and heart palpitations, again symptoms of anxiety disorders. Soldiers were even known to be given opium to relieve this ‘overexcitement.’ However, America was not alone in its misdiagnosis of anxiety. In the Victorian era, women who were prone to panic attacks were often sent to insane asylums or even lobotomised.
With regard to 20th century advances, a key example would be Ribot’s 1911 work on The Psychology of the Emotions, where he coined the term ‘panophobia’, which was described as a feeling of vague and persistent dread. Electroconvulsive therapy and other controversial means were introduced in the 20th century as a proposed treatment for anxiety-like symptoms.
By the 1980s, our understanding had developed and the term “anxiety disorder” was formally established. By the 1990s, research was being conducted into the merits of medication in anxiety patients. Today there is a much more coherent understanding of what constitutes anxiety and how it can be treated. But there remains much work on how to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, which is something that should be reflected in schools and the curriculum.
The big question is what can schools do to raise awareness about anxiety and mental health? One way could be to introduce a standalone lesson or small scheme of work about anxiety and how our understanding has developed over time. Or perhaps leading an assembly on the history of anxiety is a good starting point to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health?
In summary, for real change to occur, there needs to be more meaningful discourse around this topic in order to ensure that there are no more periods of silence or misinformation about mental health.
In my next blog, I will discuss the issues of how and why the history of mental health should be included in the history curriculum.
If you have a moment, please take a look at our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week webpage where we’re sharing anxiety and wellbeing lesson plans, blogs and podcasts for teachers and students.
Please let us know how you are marking Mental Health Awareness Week yourself and in your setting.
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions, you can email us at OCRHistory@ocr.org.uk, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_History. You can also sign up to receive subject updates to keep up-to-date with the latest news, updates and resources.
Jess Ripper is a history teacher and Head of Politics at St Francis’ College in Hertfordshire. She has been teaching for 4 years. Before teaching, she worked as an Executive Assistant at the University of Cambridge and for an MEP in the European Parliament, specialising in research and policy.