Stigma through the Ages

This morning, I read an article on the Telegraph’s website which asks, I thought a really pertinent question – namely, would leading historical figures, such as Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln be able to reach the heights of influence that they did today – given that they were all affected by mental illness. The article reflects on a report written as a part of the ‘Think to Think’ campaign which is running to combat the ills of stigma relating to mental illness.

A young Florence Nightingale
Image via Wikipedia

The Telegraph writes

The report warns that achievements including the theory of evolution, the creation of modern nursing, developments in cancer treatment and the abolition of slavery may never have happened under modern ideas about mental health.

As well as Churchill, Curie and Lincoln both suffered from depression, while Darwin had extreme bouts of anxiety and agoraphobia and experts believe that Florence Nightingale suffered from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression.

The report speculates that without Churchill, Britain could have made a compromise peace agreement in 1940, allowing a Nazi-dominated Europe and the loss of freedom and democracy.

It also warns that the “next Churchill” could be missed because of the modern demands on politicians.

Are we more demanding of today’s public figures and workforce in general and thus cutting off an enormously talented group of people who have been successful historically, from joining the workforce or, perhaps more tellingly, public life?

I wouldn’t imagine the perceptions of mental illness were any more positive in the past – one only has to look at some of the asylums – but perhaps with a less ubiquitous press and media – it was not something that everyone on the street corner was aware of.

Alastair Campbell, who  co-authors the paper writes

“Churchill with his depressions, drinking and long lie-ins; Darwin with his severe anxiety that showed up in stomach disorders, crippling headaches, agoraphobia, trembling, palpitations of the heart, and mental torment which often left him in floods of tears.

“Would the media and public have been understanding about their conditions? – these statistics suggest otherwise.”

One of the key things to note is the importance of work. Can you imagine if the university employers of Darwin had discriminated on the basis of his anxiety attacks? If Nightingale’s military employers felt that she would not be able to cope?

I think the document – called ‘A World Without’ – is certainly food for thought about changing societal attitudes but also it’s about rolling back a wave of media interest in the personal lives of public people and also, and perhaps this is where the campaign can work most effectively, in presenting positive stories and representations that reduce workplace discrimination against mental illness.

People in public office had moments of privacy in a way that is nigh on impossible today.

10 thoughts on “Stigma through the Ages

  1. Seems even more of a reason to “Be the change that you want to see”. Without sounding too pretentious, I think it is up to everyone with mental illness to attempt to educate those in their lives about the reality of what it means to be mentally ill. I’ve found since I have become more open about it, the shame has diminished, and I hope there is a knock on effect.

    Lola x

  2. Dear CB,
    This is fascinating stuff; I’m often wondering about the people preceding our big media fests who would have fared differently in our times.

    And thanks for the comment on my own blog, about shopping with a budget and list.

    I’m curious how you find all of this information on your site. I’m a social worker, too; in U.S. child protective services for 3 years and now awarding financial aid for former foster youth who are going to college (the funnest job in our Children’s Administration). I also worked for years in mental health and enjoy clicking on some of your links.

  3. One more thing – I saw Mike Wallace of CFS fame on a short PSA last night encouraging people with depression to get help; he said he got help. Wonderful admission on TV.

  4. Thanks Helen. A lot the general news I get from newspaper sites – mostly The Guardian. It’s very good with social care news – and Community Care which is a weekly magazine for social workers in the UK and is very widely read here. And if you look up the link for Social Work News – that’s a great site.

    Actually, I mostly use the links I have posted – especially the ‘more links’ tab at the top, you’ll see there’s a load more.

    I appreciate the comments. and I think that’s great that Mike did that (of course, I have no idea who he is but imagine that it’s a location thing!).

    and I love your blog but just found it 🙂

  5. That report misses the point. What about all the potential that was wasted because so many languished in asylums?

    Most likely Churchill would quietly have taken some citaloparm and the public would have been none the wiser.

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