I have been going on and on about mental health for more than 18 months now. I always talk about how it is important to address mental health issues and what we can do to help the patients. Today I wish to talk about the place and time from where this concept of mental health came in the first place. Is it really a movement?

Mental Hygiene

As I have said before, during the 19th century, most people believed that mental illnesses were caused due to evil spirits or bad karma. The patients were chained and beaten or even lobotomized to be cured. In 1843, the word, ‘mental hygiene’ was used for the first time. In 1849, the Berlin Society of Physicians and Surgeons adopted the slogan of ‘healthy mental and physical development of the citizen’ to promote the concept of mental health of common people. It was first used to describe the effect of intellect and passions on our health and duration of life. In the last decade of 19th century and initial decade of the 20th, there was an awakening across Psychologists and Psychiatrists in the UK and USA about the plight of mental patients. This was known as the ‘mental hygiene movement’.

Meyer & Beers

The mental hygiene movement started as a result of a book by Clifford Beers titled, “A Mind That Found Itself”. It was released in the USA in 1908. This led to the formation of Mental Hygiene Society in the same year and in the next year; the National Committee for Mental Hygiene was founded thanks to efforts of Meyer and Beers. Soon this built up to the formation of ‘International Committee on Mental Hygiene” which was later superseded by ‘World Federation of Mental Health’.

1930s & 1950s

In the 1930s, the aim of the Committee shifted from curative to preventive measures. The focus of the shift was that they needed to take mental healthcare to the common man and make it more accessible. It was believed that a more aware and sensitized society could itself play a role in management of mental illnesses. In late 1930s, some radical ideas like eugenics and sterilization of the mentally ill was gaining some traction. This coincided with the rise of Adolf Hitler and his beliefs of a supreme race but these ideas were soon discarded. In the 1950s, there was another shift in the perspective of mental healthcare. In the 1950s, mental health was being seen as not simple the absence of mental illnesses. It was believed that it is necessary to have a positive outlook on mental health and a new definition was sought.


It came as a big surprise for me when I first read that mental health is not necessarily a discipline but a movement. It isn’t something like Physics or Philosophy that can be studied as a subject through research papers. Instead, it is a movement that aims to

  • make people more aware about mental illnesses,
  • improve the standards of health care of mentally ill people,
  • take preventive measures to reduce the potency of mental illnesses and reduce the stigma around them and,
  • to create a more healthy and productive human populace.

That is what the agenda of this movement is and it is one which, if achieved, would take humanity ahead quicker and further.