Welcome to a virtual tour of the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Today we are featuring collections about mental health.
These collections document the history of social and scientific efforts to understand mental illness and support people and communities in maintaining mental health. They preserve stories—of people who struggled with mental illness, of the impact on mental health of historical events, and of changes in understanding and attitudes surrounding mental health.
NLM staff have selected these highlights from the collections for you to explore. We welcome questions! Use the comment feature below to share your thoughts.
Selections from NLM Digital Collections
NLM Digital Collections is the National Library of Medicine’s free online repository of biomedical resources including books, manuscripts, and still and moving images.
Explore many more related images in NLM Digital Collections under these search terms:
Recently added to NLM Digital Collections is the film The Mask, produced in the mid-1960s by the Louisiana Association for Mental Health. The Mask was directed by George Stoney, a well-regarded documentary filmmaker and professor of film studies at New York University for more than 40 years.
The title is timely, as it addresses the fact that police are often called upon to handle situations where a person’s troubling or threatening behavior is due to a mental illness or addiction, which may require a specialized response from law enforcement. The film’s abstract states it clearly: “This training film is intended to make police officers aware that alcohol can disguise or mask serious physical and mental illnesses. Produced in concert with the Cleveland Police Department, it is one of a series of films that offer a view of police officers as instruments for social service rather than just law enforcers seeking to arrest and punish.” The NLM has digitized three other films in the series—Cry for Help, which focuses on how police can best assist people who are suicidal, Booked for Safekeeping, which stresses the responsibility police have to keep people safe when they’re in custody, and Under Pressure, a look at the mental pressures law enforcement officers face.
Learn more about mental health films from the NLM historical audiovisuals collection on Circulating Now, in this online Guide to Mental Health Motion Pictures, or watch selections from the collection on the NLM YouTube channel.
Books and Journals
Ideas about the “balance of the passions” were popular in the Renaissance and early modern periods. One famous work showing how influential these ideas would become is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy which included the following observations about the possibly disastrous role of unchecked emotions:
“the mind most effectually works upon the body, producing by his passions and perturbations miraculous alterations . . . cruel diseases and sometimes death itself.”
This text was current in Shakespeare’s day. The cold, dry temperament of melancholy was considered the most complex and least desirable of the four humors by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as it was for the ancients. Yet melancholy was also traditionally associated with genius and the life of scholarship. In Hamlet, Ophelia becomes a classic case of the melancholy virgin because of her isolation at court, her overbearing father’s commands, and Hamlet’s withdrawal of attention from her.
“They are apt to loathe, dislike, disdaine, to be weary of every object, eath thing almost is odious to them, they pine away, void of counsel, apt to weep and tremble, timorous, fearful, sad, and out of all hopes of better fortunes.”
Incunabula is a term coined in the 17th century to refer to books printed “in the cradle” or infancy of the Western printing press, generally from the early 1450s to 1500. The root word derives from the Latin for the leather straps that were used by the Romans to bind or swaddle infants in their cradles. This copy of Hippocrates work on mental health was printed in Augsburg, Germany around 1503.
- De insania Democriti philosophi facetu[m] epistoliu[m] hipocratis medici. Hippocrates. Augsburg: Johann Froschauer, not before July 1503
This group of materials consists of selected digitized English language monographs which demonstrate the evolution of American medicine from colonial frontier outposts of the 17th century to research hospitals of the 20th century. Here are a few relating to mental health:
- A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography by Clifford Whittingham Beers, Garden City, New York, 1923
- Memorial of Miss D. L. Dix: To the Honorable the General Assembly in Behalf of the Insane of Maryland by Dorothea Lynde Dix, Annapolis, Maryland, 1852
- The Prisoners’ Hidden Life, or, Insane Asylums Unveiled by E.P.W. (Elizabeth Parsons Ware) Packard, Chicago, Illinois, 1868
- Mental hygiene by Isaac Ray, Boston, Massachusetts, 1863
Shell-shock: A Digest of the English Language by Henry R. Viets, 1917
Archive and Manuscript Collections
View the Finding Aid | Read More about h
When future researchers look back at our time, what resources will they want to explore? Of the news and information that is created and shared digitally over the web, what will remain to be examined one, ten, or even fifty years from now? This content is in a constant state of change and at high risk for loss.
The NLM web archive collection on Autism and Alzheimer’s is a collection of websites that represent a sample of available web resources related to Autism Spectrum Disorder and Alzheimer’s Disease in 2013. Sites include perspectives from government and policymakers, researchers and health care workers, caregivers and individuals experiences. Learn more about the creation of this collection on Circulating Now.
NLM Exhibitions and Events
The National Library of Medicine curates stories about the social and cultural history of science and medicine that enhance awareness of and appreciation for the collections and health information resources of the National Library of Medicine. This work encourages enthusiasm for history and nurtures young professionals in the fields of history, the health professions, and biomedical sciences.
Explore scholarship around the history of Mental Health at NLM.
Care and Custody: Past Responses to Mental Health explores the treatment of people with mental health conditions throughout history. This traveling banner and online exhibition examines how the U.S. has moved away from custodial forms of treatment toward more inclusive approaches and worked to protect the rights of people with mental health conditions over the past 200 years.
The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-paper” examines a short story that challenged 19th-century notions of female weakness and social conventions that restricted women’s professional and creative opportunities.
Mike Gorman (1913–1989) was a well-known journalist, author, publicist, and crusader for health policy reform. He won a Lasker Award in 1948 for his newspaper exposés of state mental hospital conditions in Oklahoma, and from 1953 to 1989 directed the National Committee Against Mental Illness, a lobbying and advocacy group. He then traveled to other southern and midwestern states in order to examine their state mental hospitals. He eventually turned his findings into his best-selling 1956 book Every Other Bed.
Louis Sokoloff (1921–2015) worked in the Laboratory of Cerebral Metabolism at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1953 until his retirement in 2004. During that time, he used his extensive knowledge of medicine, biochemistry, physiology, neuroscience, mathematics, and kinetic modeling to transform the study of brain structure and function. And he was able to “translate” his laboratory discoveries into a clinical technology—PET scanning—that could show the human brain working in real time.
- The Girl in the Lion Cage: Regulating Hypnotism in Nineteenth Century France—Katrin Schultheiss, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of History, The George Washington University, February 27, 2020 Read an Interview
- Mind-Body Problems: Lobotomy, Science, and the Digital Humanities—Miriam Posner, PhD, Assistant Professor, Information Studies Department, University of California Los Angeles, September 19, 2019. Read an Interview
Other Resources on the History of Mental Health
Finding Aids to Archive and Manuscript Collections
Finding aids are the main access point and research support tool provided for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts, Prints and Photographs, and Films and Videos collections. These aids offer detailed descriptions of large aggregations of materials. Collections that contain content related to mental health include:
- Bertram Brown Papers 1884—Dr. Brown at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where he was a key figure in the national effort to redefine and expand mental health services during the 1960s and 1970s.
- NIMH oral history collection—I
- Germany, Heer, Sanitatsinspektion Reports—Documents issued by Beratender Psychiater beim Heeres-Sanitatsinspekteur in Berlin, 1943–1944. Documents pertain to psychiatric problems and care of German soldiers in German field hospitals in World War II. Reports convey information on German war effort and possible problems resulting from release of soldiers from hospitals and their reentry into the community.
- Wayne Dennis Papers—Dr. Dennis
- US/USSR Psychiatry Delegation Records—
Current Information on Mental Health
For current, trusted information about mental health please visit NLM’s online health information resource MedlinePlus.
- Demystifying Medicine: Suicide and Depression in Time of COVID-19, Demystifying Medicine Lecture Series, 2021
- The Mental Health Impact of the COVID Pandemic: A Major Life Stressor, COVID-19 Scientific Interest Group, 2021
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders. NIMH is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NLM Collection Tours series provides highlights from the diverse historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) on a variety of contemporary topics in health and medicine. Some library services, such as our scan on demand service are temporarily suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but staff are available to answer questions.