What the money in our pockets tells us about mental health in British society, past and present.
We know that mental health and financial difficulties are frequently intertwined. However, what is often overlooked, is that this relationship is even woven into the visible fabric of our bank notes.
Get out your purse. Open up your wallet. Look in the lining of that jacket. Lucky enough to find a note?
If so, whip it out. If she’s there, you can wish Queen Elizabeth a happy 90th birthday (she’s celebrated 56 of them on UK banknotes, since first appearing in 19601), but it’s the other side of the note we’re interested in.
Now, in front of you, there’s a good chance you’re probably looking at someone with a personal or professional connection to mental health:
Starting with the five pound note, you might be looking at the face of Elizabeth Fry (a significant Victorian reformer of prisons and asylums in Britain)(2), or at Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (who reportedly lived with “bouts of melancholic depression [and] heavy lifelong alcohol consumption”) (3).
If you’re slightly more flush, then the Bank of England ten pound note features the naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin’s reported mental health symptoms coincided with crucial crises in his life – such as his discovery that rival biologist Alfred Wallace had independently reached conclusions about evolution –resulting in a life-long mosaic of anxiety and panic attacks. (4)
Found yourself even richer than you expected? Well, the economist Adam Smith (pictured) – on the twenty and fifty pound note in England and Scotland respectively – is reported to have experienced shaking fits while studying at Oxford, now thought by some to be symptoms of a nervous breakdown. (5)
Equally, on the current Bank of England fifty pound note, James Watt (the Scottish inventor and engineer, whose steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution) is documented as living with depression. “I am plagued with the blues … my head is too much confused to do any brain work”, Watt reportedly wrote in his personal correspondence, perhaps driving his ever-present concern that his depression and precarious financial circumstances would result in London’s notorious debtor’s prison. (6)
These historical characters are not alone. Looking back, a previous twenty pound note carried the image of the composer Edward Elgar, who was employed at Worcester City and County Lunatic Asylum (where patients danced to Elgar’s music as performed by a band of asylum staff) (7), while Florence Nightingale on a now withdrawn ten pound note is reported by some American scholars to have “heard voices and experienced a number of severe depressive episodes in her teens and early 20’s – symptoms consistent with the onset of bipolar disorder”. (8)
Clearly, such ‘diagnoses across the decades’ can spark controversy and debate – it can remind us that mental illness is not a barrier to ingenuinty or contribution, and that many of our central historical figures may have lived and thrived with such conditions. At the same time, caution must always be exercised with any diagnosis (no matter its potential impact on wider stigma), and even more so where formulation is undertaken through literary study and to people we have never met.
However, there is a wider and more pressing point to make.
We know that mental health and financial difficulties are often intertwined. So, as we look ahead, to the new Bank of England notes featuring Winston Churchill (who famously lived with his ‘black dog’ of Depression) (9), or the twenty pound note carrying JMW Turner’s image (whose mother was admitted to Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in 1799 and the Bethlem Hospital in 1800) (10), we need to think differently.
We all need to take as much care and time about discussing not just the faces, characters and lives that adorn our currency, but also the underlying design for how our society and financial systems approach the complex dynamics between money and mental health.
After all, every time we reach to pay with hard currency, a visible reminder of this relationship is literally staring us right in the face.
5 Ross IS. (2010). The Life of Adam Smith. Oxford University Press.
7 Music for the Powick Asylum (in The Elgar Complete Edition), Vol 22.