By Hannah Elder, Reproductions Coordinator
Content warning: this post includes discussion of mental health, including instances of historic language regarding mental health that is outdated.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness each year. As we emerge from 15 months of pandemic-induced stress, fear, grief, and isolation, that number is bound to be even higher this year. Mental illness is not a new or modern phenomenon; throughout history, people have lived with mental illness, seeking support and treatment where they could. The MHS collections include references to mental health and mental illness spanning hundreds of years. These references include the personal papers of those experiencing mental illness or those caring for loved ones experiencing mental illness, the records of individuals and institutions advocating for better mental health care, and the papers of physicians and organizations who treated people with mental illnesses.
Transcribed below are just two examples of records discussing mental health and mental illness from the MHS collection.
Boston June 8th 1828
By particular request I am induct to drop a few lines to you, (although unknown in person) to solicit your attention to the case of Mrs. Barron who is very much afflicted with ill health in her own person, with which are intimately connected poverty and want in a great degree. (almost entirely dependant for a long time on charities from different sources) but another trouble and that not the easiest to be managed is the derangement of Mind of her Daughter Nancy, (of which I suppose you are not altogether unacquainted,) which of late has become much worse, and renders it nesesary that something should be done for their relief immediately: she states that she has been under the necessity of borrowing money to pay one quarters rent of her room, and another is almost here that she has not heard from you for five months; although you gave encouragement of affording some relief if it is within you province on behalf of the town of Concord to do any thing you are desired to let her know what she can depend on as soon as it is convenient or application must be made to some other source. Yours truly — D Patten
This is one of two letters written to Dr. Abiel Heywood by or on behalf of Rebecca and Nancy Barron in 1827 and 1828. The first letter, written by Rebecca Barron, describes their ill health and poverty and asks Heywood for help in paying their rent.
Mathew Carey to Isaiah Thomas in the Foster family autograph collection
Isaiah Thomas, Esq
Your favor of the 1st I read yesterday
After advertising for two weeks in vain, Miss Aitken’s sister heard of the advertisement and called on me a few days hence, then I handed her you letter, which she opened in my presence, + which I found contained fifteen dollars. She appeared very grateful.
Miss Aitkens has not been from home for, I think, ten years. Her mind, I understand, is somewhat deranged.
Your obedient servant
Philadelphia Oct. 5 1826
Jane Aitken was a publisher and book binder from Philadelphia. Little is known about the last decades of her life, when this letter was written.
These are just two of the individuals represented in our collections who grappled with mental illness. To continue research into mental health and mental illness, consider these collections:
- George S. Emerson diaries
- Walter Channing (1849-1921) diaries
- Newell family papers
- Sedgwick family papers
- Robert G. Valentine family papers
- Winslow family memorial
If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek support.
- Crisis text line: text HOME to 741741
- The NAMI Helpline: 800-950-NAMI (800-950-6264)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
 “Mental Health By the Numbers,” NAMI, https://www.nami.org/mhstats.