Destigmatizing Mental Health through Film in the 1950s

Image from "Angry Boy," 1950, via YouTube

May 07, 2015

In the 1950s, mental health was a widely misunderstood issue in the American public. That’s why a husband and wife team decided to share films on mental health as educational tools. But they needed the support of a locally connected organization to get the word out, and so they approached AAUW.

The Mental Health Film Board, a group of film producers, psychiatrists, and educators, was established in 1949 by mental health expert Alberta Jacoby and her producer husband Irving. It was founded as a division of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. So why did they choose AAUW for this work? Film producers wanted to test the use of film as a new medium to educate people about mental health issues, and community groups like AAUW were enlisted because they could reach a wide group of interested people. Producers documented audience reactions to their films, both emotional and intellectual, and gauged the films’ effectiveness.

According to Edith Sherrard, AAUW staff associate in social studies at the time, “Not very much is known about the impact on audiences of mental health films.” Sherrard noted that these films needed to be evaluated differently because “popularity, the usual test, is not necessarily a measure of success in educational media.”

Beginning in 1956, the AAUW Social Studies Committee collaborated with the Mental Health Film Board to screen films designed to educate the population about a variety of topics such as adolescence, drug and alcohol abuse, parent-child relationships, aging, and healthy communication, to name just a few.

By participating, AAUW members evaluated the effectiveness of films as a medium of education in mental health. In Sherrard’s words, the goal of the project was not “instruction itself, but an evaluation of instruction.”

A brochure advertising the mental health awareness film "Kid Brother"

A brochure advertising the mental health awareness film “Kid Brother”

Eleven AAUW branches participated including those in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Cody, Wyoming; Fargo, North Dakota; Hartford, Connecticut; Hutchinson, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Lansing, Michigan; Redding, California; Richland, Washington; Rochester, Minnesota; and St. Louis, Missouri. Members were given a mental health opinion test before and after the films, and they were asked questions after each showing. Reactions to the films were recorded.

In the first year, five films were viewed: Angry Boy, Man to Man, Fears of Children, Roots of Happiness, and A Family Affair. The following year brought a special viewing of another film, Kid Brother, which dealt with adolescent use of alcohol. Although none of these titles became well-known, they still had profound impact. For example, the film Angry Boy investigated the root causes of a young boy’s delinquent behavior. This film was considered very successful because it introduced the idea, although controversial at the time, that even children with relatively minor personal or social problems could benefit from mental health services. This helped to shape the way Americans thought about the purpose and delivery of such services.

Summaries of the films and branch evaluations are in the Social Studies Committee records in AAUW’s archives. The mental health film project was a very popular one and all who participated did so with a sense of great pride. The AAUW Rochester (MN) Branch even continued on in the role as an informal sounding board for future Mental Health Film Board productions. AAUW should be proud of this part of our history. Our members’ contributions led to better knowledge of mental health issues at a time when public understanding of the subject was filled with misconceptions and stigmas.


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