A Short History of Mental Health

Looking backward to move forward

A Place for ADHD

Why historians are concerned about context

My old high school recently shut down.  Now, while many people might relish the thought of their old school closing their doors for good, this isn't the case for me.  No, I know, and I probably knew even then, that my school was a life saver.  My parents sent me there in grade 11 after I had, let's say, "underachieved" in another school.  The new school was smaller, private, and Lutheran, but what really mattered was the teachers.  It was clear that they enjoyed being there and took a genuine interest in our welfare, both academic and otherwise.  Soon after I started grade 11, my marks shot up, I made new friends, and life seemed rosier altogether.  I still found time to get into trouble, both with my old friends and the new ones I'd met, but the school and its teachers had really made a difference.  

A decade or so earlier I had experienced a similar educational transformation.  I had been going to kindergarten in the local school, just around the corner from where I lived.  I remember the first day vividly partly because it rained - it always seemed to on the first day - and because my mother told me that I wouldn't be able to go if I didn't learn how to tie my shoes.  This was a pre-velcro era.  I managed to figure the laces out, but apparently there was more I should have mastered.

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A few months into the term, my mother was called in for a conference with my teacher.  She, the teacher, suggested to my mother that I had something called a "learning disability," chiefly because I couldn't use scissors properly and I struggled to balance on the balance beam.  My mother did not take this well and soon I was in another school.  A longer walk, but there was no more talk of learning disabilities.  And I think I did fine, as far as I know.  Perhaps I would have done even better had I been labelled with a learning disability, but I suspect part of the problem was that I was nearsighted and needed a pair of glasses.

So, what does this all have to do with the history of ADHD?  Well, what I've been describing relates to the importance of context in understanding situations, historical or otherwise.  In the upcoming weeks, as I describe some of the more interesting chapters in the history of ADHD, context plays an integral role in changing people's opinions, resolving debates, and making decisions.  Just as my educational future was shaped by changing schools, different facets of the history of ADHD have been determined by the historical contexts in which they occurred. Nothing in the history of ADHD has occurred out of context or without the influence of external social, economic, political, cultural, or technological factors.  When we think about why children were increasingly seen to be hyperactive during the late 1950s, or why Ritalin became the most common treatment for the disorder, or why these developments were highly controversial, we must look to context.  And that is what historians do best.

 

Matthew Smith, Ph.D. is a Lecturer and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

 

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