Lucy Forsey explores how portrayals of mental health have developed through the centuries.
One of the first things I thought about when faced with the subject of mental health and its relationship to literature was Freudian theory. Even if they have become less fashionable, Freudian ideas have been very influential to how we perceive and try to understand our own mental processes. They are generally interested in human fears, desires, anxieties, ambitions, and surface/ego and depth/subconscious balance, and how literature processes all of this. From a Freudian standpoint, there are psychological undercurrents to every work of literature, each piece a production of the thought processes of the author. Mental health has always been a strong current running through all forms of literature. However, what has been subject to historical change is society’s willingness to accept this topic as something which needs to be talked about.
Rolling back some 400 years ago, take a look at William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Freud would argue that Hamlet’s fragile mental state and apparent inability to repress pre-Oedipus urges induces a state of ‘madness’ (in a nutshell). Such an issue of madness is equally explicit in and important to the plots of King Lear and Macbeth. Renaissance England undeniably did not understand mental illness as we do today, although there were theories in place which attempted to understand madness as a general concept. Whilst today we use medical terms to actually diagnose individual mental illnesses, the people of Renaissance England maintained the Aristotelian view that madness was linked to divine motivation. If you were mad, you were also shameful. Early Modern literature presented madness, but the cultural beliefs of the time categorised mental illness as a ‘taboo’ subject, something to be feared.
It is easy to say from today’s view that later novels which included characters with some form of mental disorder similarly did not properly attempt to unpack the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of mental illnesses. Some have argued that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can be accused of doing just this. Mr Rochester’s wife is described as a madwoman in the attic, who presents a prevalent threat, although it is never explained or fully explored why she is ‘mad’. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been considered by some to be extremely damaging, offering an inaccurate presentation of how borderline personality disorder works. Both texts are examples of perhaps dated literature which potentially mistreats the topic of mental disorders.
All things considered, since the 1900s significant advances have been made in our understanding of mental illness. Indeed, the most significant advances have only been achieved very recently, medically and in terms of literature’s ability to handle mental illness. But over these last 100 years, the initiative to discuss the topic in any great length of detail has been raised by a number of prominent literary names: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for instance. These are three books I think everyone should read. We are living in an age which is working to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, and to improve mental health access for all that need it. Literature is just one way to counteract the taboo about mental health. Sebastian Faulks new work, Human Traces, considers schizophrenia on a heavily-researched, scientific basis, a sign that things are moving forward. The power of literature is incredible, so let’s use it to spread the awareness of mental health.
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