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Book Review   |    
Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films, 1945-1970
Kenneth E. Fletcher, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2001; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.52.4.545
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by Ken Smith; New York, Blast Books, 1999, 238 pages, $24.95

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If you were in school anytime between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, you were probably forced to sit through classes whose stated purpose was to improve your mental hygiene. Everyone involved in these classes seemed to feel uncomfortable with the subject matter they covered. Mental hygiene films were short 16-mm films covering topics intended to teach children and adolescents how to stay out of trouble and fit in and be "normal." At the time, these films were taken very seriously by teachers and students alike. Thankfully, mental hygiene films are no longer made, and they are infrequently shown today, except as clips on the Comedy Channel.

This book has its provenance in humor, but the final product has a lot to tell us about the use of the media to influence the behavior of our youth. The author first considered writing on this subject when he was chopping funny parts out of the films for use on the Comedy Channel. Over time he began to find it more enjoyable—and disturbing—to view the films in their entirety rather than in isolated bits and pieces. As he became more interested in these films, he began to delve more deeply into their history.

"Mental hygiene films, I have since learned, were tools of social engineering, created to shape the behavior of their audiences," writes Smith. "Today they sometimes remind us of Leave It to Beaver or Plan 9 From Outer Space—and can likewise be appreciated for their cornball innocence and low-budget ingenuity—but that is an accident of time, not intent. The people who made mental hygiene films were not dumb. To view them solely as a source of cheap laughs is, frankly, to miss most of the reason they're interesting."

"Mental hygiene films, like a polio sugar cube or a measles shot, were conceived as preventative medicine," Smith continues. Kids would watch them and learn that being selfish, arrogant, undemocratic, or delinquent would make them unhappy or, depending on the producer, dead. Conversely, those who played by the rules and maintained the status quo were rewarded with popularity, fun, and a life span that extended into their twenties."

This treasure trove of information on these overlooked early attempts to use media to influence behavior is divided into three parts. The first provides commentary on eight general areas addressed by the films: fitting in, the consequences of being bad, how to act on a date, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, the bloody results of breaking the rules of the road, sex education, films for girls only, and films sponsored by big corporations. The commentary is sardonic but insightful without degenerating into either sophomoric humor or dry scholarly writing.

The second part describes the styles of four of the major producers of mental hygiene films. The discussion here adds to the social commentary of the book and is interesting in its own right.

The final part of the book is an alphabetical listing of the most important of the films. A short description of the content of each film is included. Also included is the producer's name, the film's release date, and the film's length, which was usually in the range of ten to 15 minutes. This is fascinating reading in itself.

If you are interested in the nooks and crannies of popular culture, or if you are interested in psychiatry and the media, you will want to read this book.

Dr. Fletcher is assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the behavior sciences research core in the Graduate School of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

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