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Blogging Against Stigma: Isaac Newton

Drawn portrait of Isaac Newton

Welcome to post 3 of my two-week series, Blogging Against Stigma. Someday, with a cumulative effort across society, people may stop dying from things like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Towards this end, this post is dedicated to Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), a scientist who struggled with mental illness throughout his life. Newton developed the theories upon which our understanding of gravity is founded. Unfortunately, while his third law of motion is taught in schools across the nation, basic information surrounding mental health is not. And so, Newton's struggle with severe depression and, during one period, symptoms of psychosis is being shared as a means of combating the one remaining factor that continues to haunt our approach to mental health as much today as it did throughout Newton's lifetime - stigma.

Illustration of Isaac Newton with apple falling on his head

Due to his contributions to science, Newton's letters written primarily to colleagues throughout his periods of illness have been archived and studied by scholars for hundreds of years now. Observations from colleagues have similarly been preserved and studied. There is a strange argument around whether his experimentation with mercury exacerbated or created his illnesses that highlights the stigma that continues to surround mental illness today. The argument asserts that Sir Isaac Newton's experimentation with mercury was the cause of his illness. This premise purposes that, outside of accidental poisoning, no one with a mind as brilliant as Sir Isaac's could possibly develop a mental illness. This argument would seem to reflect an underlying assumption that no one as brilliant/famous/wealthy as Isaac Newton could have had something go awry with his brain - that only happens to "crazy people".

This strange argument highlights our societal tendency to view mental health issues through a lens of character assassination versus through the more accurate lens of medical malady. The misconceptions surrounding mental health have not changed much in the last 400 years. There is a commonly held position among us: "That person is successful/smart/attractive/rich/etc. - what do they possibly have to be sad about?" A distant relative, Humphrey Newton, once commented that, in his five years of working as Newton's assistant, he saw Newton laugh only once. That speaks volumes to suffering of Sir Isaac Newton - a reality that developed and persisted despite of all his money and fame.

Kind Regards, Joanna Doane Ottavio

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