Understanding Mental Health and Work
a Commentary to accompany our annotated edition of “The Strawberry Girl”
by Morgan Farnham and Natasha Head
The ‘Mental Diseases’ article in the August 1861 issue of British Workman (issue no. 80) demonstrates very clearly how views on mental health and mental health treatments have developed dramatically since the nineteenth century. For example, the article offers a cure for ‘Idleness,’ a term which would not be recognised as a mental health issue today – though we might think of it as a cousin to depression. ‘Mental Diseases’ recommends as a cure for it that one ‘count the tickings of a clock. Do this for an hour, and you will be glad to pull off your coat, and work like a “navvy.”’ Good mental health practises and ideals seem to be strongly associated with work and productivity.
This is exemplified in a short story called ‘The Strawberry Girl’, which we transcribed and commented on elsewhere on this site. On the same page as the ‘Mental Diseases’ advice, it seems to accompany the article as an example of how good morals and hard work can cure the mental health problem of ‘discontent.’
The short story shows a parallel between a working-class and a middle-class women, the eponymous protagonist being the former. The middle-class woman suffers from ‘discontent’ (see footnote 4 in our edition) due to a life of over-indulgence, and learns from the Strawberry Girl that there is happiness to be found in a life of hard work. The story ends with the protagonist being rewarded for her honesty and commitment to labour, ‘transferred to the Sunday-school Bible-class, where she was regarded as a pattern of truth and integrity for her associates.’ She even gains excellent occupational opportunities with a generous wealthy family, benefiting both her and her mother.
Such thinking is heavily influenced by general religious beliefs of the nineteenth century. For example, when Nellie, the heroine of ‘The Strawberry Girl,’ is tempted, she is reminded of the importance of the Ten Commandments, whilst her conscience is described as ‘that voice of God in the soul’. Nellie suffers greatly when she believes she has strayed from the righteous path: ‘Nellie’s heart sank within her. Had she listened, and obeyed that evil voice, what might she have become—a breaker of God’s holy Commandment!’ However, she resists temptation and is rewarded with a life of work with the family of the upper-class woman whom she helped, both by not stealing from her, and by teaching her a lesson of the benefits of hard working and gratefulness. Religion and hard work are associated with good morals, and Nellie is rewarded by practising both in her humble life. Furthermore, Miss Hamilton is rewarded with contentedness by following the example of the hard-working Nellie, and finding ways to be grateful in her indulgent lifestyle. The classes cooperate and everyone benefits.
The story is clearly allegorical, meant to teach readers of the British Workman the lesson that hard work and the practise of good religious morals will be rewarded in multiple ways; in other words, the story itself practices what it preaches – it “works.” This is related to an idea of the magical nature of words – an idea that uttering something can conjure it into existence as we see in the interpretation of a death from a “fit of passion,” an account that we see from the British Newspaper Archive, was widely reprinted in the press in 1883. Saying it will make it happen. We can see this belief exemplified in other stories on this site too.
And yet at the same time, more empirical views of the value of work for mental health were also emerging. The 19th century was a revolutionary time for mental health. The Science Museum website explains that ‘when the first large asylums were built in the early 1800s, they were part of a new, more humane attitude towards mental healthcare’ (Science Museum). A key part of that new attitude comprised the use of work to occupy and improve the well being of patients. Waltraud Ernst describes how ‘from the late eighteenth century onwards, work and work therapy were prominent features, culminating in the rise of a specialist profession affiliated to medicine – occupational therapy’.
What is fundamental in the fiction and the science is that the very idea of existence and identity are bound up with work. One’s identity and general behaviour in the world are not ends in themselves but work as examples to others: we are “patterns” – representatives of something beyond us – and therefore have a duty to work hard to ensure we represent good and healthful morals. A realisation and acceptance of the representative and not individual nature of our identity seems to be key to the idea of mental health that the British Workman promotes. While that idea of existence as work may not have been behind the more empirically-based ideas of Victorian ‘alienists’ (mental health professionals), it is one that challenges the consumerist views of mental health based on desire and its frustration that professional psychoanalysts were soon to promote.
It also has its ridiculous side, as we sought to point out in our satirical short story, “The Marvellous Cure for Mr Parker,” which can be found by clicking on this link.