Jess Ripper, history teacher and Head of Politics at St Francis’ College in Hertfordshire
Mental Health Awareness Week has raised the profile of discussing mental health in schools, which got me thinking, is there a place for this in the history curriculum? When considering this, I have encountered three main problems: the concerns around discussing mental health, tokenism, and timetable constraints. However, I believe that these three concerns are exactly the reasons why mental health deserves a place in the history curriculum.
The first issue to consider is that many people are uncomfortable talking about mental health. As part of the Time to Talk campaign, an article by Mind stated that almost 20 million adults never talk about their mental health. If we are hoping for a more open discourse around this topic, this is an important issue to overcome. Furthermore, research conducted by the NHS in 2020 shows that 17% of children between the ages of six and sixteen had a probable mental disorder. Surely, something of this prevalence needs to be addressed?
The second problem is the very real concern of the inclusion of mental health becoming tokenistic. Unfortunately, when new or difficult topics are dealt with in schools, there is the chance of it feeling forced or becoming an annual add-on to the curricula framework. Therefore we need to overcome this by embedding mental health into the curriculum rather than just adding it on.
The final problem, and potentially the biggest one, is the fact that the history curriculum is already congested with a multitude of fascinating and important topics. In a subject where we are grappling over which narratives to include and whose story to tell, where can the history of mental health come into this? That said, if the growing incorporation of diverse histories has taught us anything, surely it is the importance of recognising diversity and for students to see a reflection of themselves in the topics that are taught in school.
Therefore, rather than perceiving the inclusion of mental health as additional content, perhaps it should be viewed as a lens to explore a particular theme. Arguably, the easiest way to examine the history of mental health would be within a Health and the People style unit. As discussed in my previous post, this could follow the perception of mental health, from the ancient Greeks all the way through to the modern day. However, below I have discussed two additional ways of exploring the history of mental health through a thematic examination of topics that are likely to be included in a curriculum already.
The first lens that we could use to examine the perception of mental health problems could be war. As far back as ancient Greece, history reveals the psychological toll of war on soldiers. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus described an Athenian warrior who became blind when watching a fellow soldier die. After the relative silence of the medieval period, in the early modern era, it was claimed that soldiers suffered from ‘nostalgia’ characterised as being taciturn, solitary and sad.
Then as mentioned in my previous blog, in the 19th century, soldiers in the American Civil War were given opium to relieve ‘irritable heart syndrome’. This misdiagnosis of mental health disorders continued to the First World War and the rise of ‘shellshock’. By the time of the Second World War, a clinician named Kardiner rethought combat trauma in a more empathetic light, arguing that the symptoms stemmed from psychological injury. Further developments in our understanding were made as a result of the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Enquiry question: How did warfare develop our understanding of mental health?
The second lens to explore this theme could be the historical perception of women. To begin with, in ancient Greece and Egypt, people believed that if a woman was unbalanced then her uterus would wander to other parts of the body causing a host of mental health problems. This school of thought was advocated by philosophers such as Plato. Eventually, this led to the mainstream use of the word ‘hysteria’ as a diagnosis for a multitude of women’s psychological and physical health issues.
As we move into the early modern period, people came to fear women’s mental health problems, associating them with witchcraft. For example, being vocal about your anxiety, or having physical symptoms that others could not explain any other way, led to the condemnation and execution of thousands of women for being ‘witches’.
Sadly, practices founded in these misconceptions continued, and in the Victorian era, women who were prone to panic attacks were often sent to insane asylums or even lobotomised. Even in recent history, we can sometimes see these erroneous assumptions continue with the stereotypes surrounding women and mental health problems.
Enquiry question: What can the treatment of women’s mental health problems tell us about society?
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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.