On July 31, 2019, I gave a talk as part of the new Austen Riggs Center public lecture series on mental health. The series is an extension of the Riggs centennial, and was incorporated into their public exhibit: “The Hospital on Main Street: Human Dignity and Mental Health.”
In my talk, I gave an overview of attitudes toward mental health in the colonial period, beginning with Native American perspectives on mental illness, then covering colonial Puritans in Massachusetts, and ending with the development of secular mental health treatment in the early years of the American republic (pre-contact to about 1812).
My main argument for this research is that attitudes toward mental health have varied, but mental illnesses have always been present in America. At several points, mental illness has been viewed just like any other kind of illness. Colonial Puritans also believed they had a duty to support and care for one another for the good of society. The health of everyone mattered.
Studying the good and bad parts of the history of mental health in this country is valuable because it normalizes and de-stigmatizes mental illness. Putting all aspects of health back into our history can help us be more empathetic, remind us to care for one another, and to see each other as people.