This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October. The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things. Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority. The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse. While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.
My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years. By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy. In this context I could not help but reflect upon the concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind. In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature. In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.