Annual Meeting

Historians for Mental Health: Starting New Conversations at #AHA17

Edmund Russell | Dec 1, 2016

Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities (1690s). Wikimedia Commons

The annual meeting in Denver will feature a session titled “Historians for Mental Health: An Open Discussion” (Saturday, January 7, 3:30–5:00 p.m.). It will not be a research session. Instead, it will create the opportunity for people interested in the role of mental health in the lives of historians to come together in a supportive atmosphere to discuss challenges and opportunities. Philippa Levine, AHA vice president, profession, and I will co-chair it.

Mental illness is common, difficult, and hidden. Our goal is to acknowledge its frequency and reduce its difficulties by opening a discussion about mental health and its impact on our profession.

If historians resemble the rest of the population, about 29 percent of us experience some form of mental illness. Of 13,000 AHA members, we would expect 871 (6.7 percent) to have major depression, 338 (2.6 percent) to have bipolar disorder, 143 (1.1 percent) to have schizophrenia, and 2,350 (18.1 percent) to have anxiety disorders.1 That adds up to 3,700 AHA members. Historians with mental illness are everywhere, often with symptoms in remission. They earn PhDs, teach, advise, curate museum exhibits, pore through archives, present papers at conferences, are our friends, and lead professional societies.

Mental illness is cruel because it handicaps brains, the parts of our bodies we rely on to do history. It can interfere with our work and lives in ways that are traumatic and devastating. At the same time, some studies suggest that creativity and mental illness sometimes go hand in hand; Kay Redfield Jamieson has traced the incidence of bipolar disorder and major depression among creative individuals. Treatment can restore full and productive lives. We need to spread the word that effective treatments are available, that thousands of historians with mental illness have built successful careers, and that the historical community values all its members.

In our session, individuals who wish to discuss their experiences with mental illness will be able to do so. The goal is to create a supportive community.

Stigma discourages people with mental illness from seeking treatment and making their conditions public. I tried to find examples of historians who had identified themselves as living with mental illness by searching Google for historian mental illness. Google found no hits. Instead, it translated historian mental illness into histrionic personality disorder and found several examples. This encapsulates one fear of those with mental illness—that others will misunderstand their condition.

The fear of being found out aligns those with mental illness, in some ways, with other communities who have experienced stigmatization. In recent years, LGBTQ and physical disability activists have advanced their communities by coming out. In our session, individuals who wish to discuss their experiences with mental illness will be able to do so. We welcome those who wish to attend without revealing their status. We encourage department chairs, colleagues, friends, and family members of people with mental illness to attend. The goal is to create a supportive community, and all who wish to contribute are welcome.

Edmund Russell is AHA vice president, research.


1. Colby Itkowitz, “Unwell and Unashamed: The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Under Attack by Sufferers, Who Are Coming Out Publicly and Defiantly,” Washington Post, June 2, 2016,

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