Originally posted on History Matters, the University of Sheffield History Department’s blog, on 30 November 2017.
By Lee Norton
Recently, the mental health charity Heads Together celebrated its first year of campaigning. Launched in May 2016 by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, alongside Prince Harry, its main initiative was to ‘tackle stigma and change the conversation on mental health.’ Standing before an audience of partners at Buckingham Palace, the Duke of Cambridge proudly emphasised the need for open conversation and declared that ‘the walls of judgement and stigma around mental illness are finally falling’.
But reflecting on this point we might ask, were these walls as high as we have been led to believe? Did the British people of the 20th century really fail to empathise with those suffering from mental health issues? Or in an age of increased scientific understanding, have we overplayed the level of stigma attached to mental illness in Britain’s past?
Certainly, psychological fields, workplace policy, and general understanding of mental health has improved over the last century. However, psychological studies relating to mental health were developing as far back as the 19th century when Durkheim deemed that social factors increased the likeliness of suicide. Even after the First World War, an understanding of ‘shellshock’ (or PTSD) and how it psychologically affected combatants was relatively understood. To address these questions further, we need only to look to newspapers of the late 1930s during a time where social anxieties were intensified by ‘war fear’.
At first it seems such texts depicted suicidal individuals as ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly’, which then enables historians to understand these individuals as shunned by society. However, reflecting on newspapers dating from around the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938 (where the language of imperialism was still relatively used), reveals a deeper understanding of depression than was previously assumed.
It was understood, as far back as the late 1930s, that one’s misfortune could lead to depression. For example, lost love, separation, debt, over-work and anxiety were known to increase the possibility of suicide. This was reflected in newspapers. In Bournemouth, the Daily Mail reported a suicide caused by ‘worr[y] over foreign bonds’. While in Kent, the Manchester Guardian reported another caused by overwork, alongside his ‘nervous disposition’. An inability to ‘endure […] parting’ was deemed the reason for a woman’s suicide in Shaldon. The dangers to mental health of accumulated grief and stress were already widely acknowledged and attributed to circumstance.
The shame and fear that some individuals feel as a result of mental health difficulties continues to exist. But we can celebrate with relief that mental health and well-being are now more openly discussed, understood and supported. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do in tackling mental health stigma.The dangers of media sensationalism, and its impact on mental health were also being recognised. Following three suicides in April 1939, the BBC was criticised by a coroner in Essex for its war announcements during a time of international anxiety. In his opinion, ‘the news [is] not always happily expressed on the wireless [and] could often be put in a happier way’. A BBC spokesperson refused to comment. Not only was chronic grief understood as harmful to mental health, so too was the intensity of news announcements becoming known to contribute, particularly in a time of crisis.
Mental health charities, ‘Equal Opportunities’ legislation and care services are the result of such developments. But we would be wrong to assume that people who struggled with mental health were consistently shunned in the past. During the Munich Crisis and the Second World War, tensions were high; people were separated from loved ones, jobs demanded high productivity, people feared for their safety. But, despite the imperial language of newspapers from the past, an understanding of people’s pain and suffering still existed.
Lee Norton is a student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His blog summarises some of his findings from the SURE Network project, ‘The Effects of National Crises on Mental Health: Studying the history of emotion using a stress-response paradigm’. His work was supervised by Dr Julie Gottlieb (Reader in Modern History) and Professor Scott Weich (Professor of Mental Health). The Sure network project emerges from research questions that will be explored further at the Munich Crisis and the People conference. This is taking place at the HRI, University of Sheffield, 29-30 June 2018.
 Indeed, Prince Harry and William, as well as the Duchess of Cambridge have much to be proud of. Heads Together was awarded charity of the year by the Virgin Money London Marathon. As a result, the marathon became the first Marathon for Mental Health. The campaign also announced its intent to donate £2 million to support an online initiative aimed to suppose those suffering
 E. Durkheim, On Suicide: A Study in Sociology (London, 1897).
 ‘Worried Over his Foreign Bonds,’ Daily Mail, 08/02/1939, p.16.
 ‘Steel Magnate Mystified,’ The Manchester Guardian, 27/08/1938, p.16.
 ‘Wife’s love cost his Life,’ The Daily Mirror, 09/02/1940, p.20.
 ‘Coroner says B.B.C. News could be Happier,’ Daily Mail, 13/04/1939, p.5.
Newspaper clippings provided by the author:
‘£300 Tax Arrears Worried Jockey,’ Daily Mail, 20/12/1938, p.5.
‘Business ruined by the War,’ The Manchester Guardian, 23/09/1939, p.6.
‘Chemist’s Dread of War Led to Suicide,’ The Manchester Guardian, 11/10/1938, p.7.
‘Imagined Money Difficulties,’ The Manchester Guardian, 19/01/1940, p.3.
‘Wife’s love Cost his Life,’ The Daily Mirror, 09/02/1940, p.20.
‘Worried Over his Foreign Bonds,’ Daily Mail, 08/02/1939, p.16.