Mental Hygiene

Mental Hygiene. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Mental Hygiene. (Adobe Stock Images).

Pre-dating the modern self care movement were advocates for mental hygiene. The term mental hygiene has been traced back to William Sweetzer in 1843. Mental hygiene refers to any community and personal practices taken to promote and preserve mental health. For almost two hundred years, many psychiatrists, physicians, and wellbeing professionals have called for action to help preserve mental health and wellness. While we need professional treatment for disease, we more importantly should address causes of the disease. Enacting mental hygiene practices is both a personal and societal responsibility. Above all, together the individual and society can work together to create a healthier population.

Society, the Individual, and Mental Hygiene

Dr. John B. Gray, an eminent psychiatrist, championed “a community-based mental hygiene that would operate through education, social culture, religion and involvement in national life” (Wallace, 1955). Certainly, we can’t defer our mental health to outside agencies. However, community and society must help. They contribute to mental health by providing safe environments and opportunity. Abraham Maslow theorized, and most agree, that before we can achieve greater fulfillment, we first must satisfy basic needs.

It is nearly impossible to enjoy life when your stomach is empty. Struggling to survive creates stress and continual stress invites disease. The diathesis stress model theorizes that “that disorders develop as a result of interactions between pre-dispositional vulnerabilities (the diathesis), and stress caused by life experiences” (Murphy, 2021).

Satisfying basic needs is a joint effort between society and the individual. Society may not be able to satisfy everyone’s basic needs, but they should create realistic access and opportunities for the individual to effectively secure food to eat, a roof over their head, and proper medical care.

Key Definition:

Mental Hygiene is adopting practices that protect the mind against damaging toxins. These practices include physical health, healthy environments, and modes of thinking and self regulation.

What is Mental Hygiene?

In 1893, Isaac Ray, a founder of the American Psychiatric Association, described mental hygiene as “the art of preserving the mind against all incidents and influences calculated to deteriorate its qualities, impair its energies, or derange its movements. The management of the bodily powers in regard to exercise, rest, food, clothing and climate, the laws of breeding, the government of the passions, the sympathy with current emotions and opinions, the discipline of the intellect—all these come within the province of mental hygiene” (Wallace, 1955).

Basically, mental hygiene includes any environment or practice that enhances mental health and prevents mental illness. As a society, and parents, we must provide the basics of mental hygiene for our children, As Thomas W, Salmon MD, an early contributor to the mental hygiene movement, puts it, we must furnish children with the equipment to live successfully.

As we grow into adults, we can change environments, finding places that are emotionally stimulating and safe. Children are dependent on others to provide these building blocks of mental health. If a child is deprived of the basic necessities for normal development then they are at risk of later suffering from mental illness.

Gabor Mate, MD explains mental hygiene slightly differently, focusing on the connection between emotions and behavioral responses. He wrote, “many of our automatic brain processes have to do with either wanting something or not wanting something else—very much the way a small child’s mental life functions. We are forever desiring and longing, or judging and rejecting. Mental hygiene consists of noticing the ebb and flow of all those automatic grasping or rejecting impulses without being hooked by them” (2011).

What is Mental Health and Mental Illness?

The two prong goal of good mental hygiene is to promote mental health and prevent mental illness. Accordingly, to better understand mental hygiene, we must first understand the end-goals.

Mental Illness

Mental illness refers “collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders” involving:

  • Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior.
  • Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities (2022).

Markedly, mental illness cripples our healthy relationship to emotion and damaging our ability to relate to others. Most mental illnesses have an organic basis but environmental activation. Basically, we have biological vulnerabilities that environmental stresses or exposures activate. Epigenetics is a recent field of study that examines how environments activate gene expressions.

Karen Horney explains “under favorable conditions man’s energies are put into the realization of his own potentialities” However, neuroses involves a “waste of constructive energies” (2013). Hence, mental illness, whether labeled a neurosis or psychosis, interferes with normal human functioning. Basically, emotions often motivate destructive behaviors.

Mental Health

Mental health is “psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment” (Chakraborty, 2016). We express mental health through positive emotions such as joy and happiness—an eudaimonic enjoyment of life. Mental health contributes to all areas of our life, creating a healthy life balance. The World Health Organization suggests that mental health refers to the subjective well-being of the individual encompasses “realization of their activities, coping with normal stress of life, productive work and contributions to their community” (2016). Or in Horney’s words “energies are put into the realization of…potentialities.”

Whole Person Wellness

Mental hygiene promotes whole person wellness. Murphy wrote, “if we want to flourish, experiencing whole person wellness, we must attend to several areas of being, nurturing our souls with healthy activities that build relationships, and encourage physical and mental health” (2021). The classical Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” typically translated as “a healthy mind in a healthy body” points to the ancient human belief that the body and mind are connected in health.

We promote a healthy mind by promoting a healthy body. John P. Gray MD wrote that “mental hygiene is practically insuperable from physical hygiene” (1878). Murphy explains, “traditional medical treatment is embracing whole person treatment, understanding the quick fix is insufficient, shifting from single transactional treatments, to whole person care. Doctors finally are widening their views, understanding that acute complaints of sickness point to much deeper causes” (2021).

Mental hygiene is whole person care.

Mental Hygiene Movement

The mental hygiene movement which can be traced back to the mid 1800’s century began to pick up steam at the turn of the century. Several psychiatrists expressed concern over the growing populations in institutions for the insane. Thomas W. Salmon, An early proponent of mental hygiene, drew attention to the growing populations, citing federal census data. Markedly, the number of those committed to a institution for the insane in 1910 “exceeded the number of students in all the colleges and universitates in the United States” (2006).

Another factor giving steam to the movement was the emerging attachment theory studies, giving attention to the impact of childhood environments to healthy development.

Adolf Meyer, one of the founders of the movement, attributed the motivating influence to its rise as “a mixture of humanitarian, fiscal, and medical factors” (1955). Leaders established a National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and in 1908 the organization conducted its first meeting. The organization was instrumental in bringing about many social changes. However, throughout its existence “was characterized by tensions between a therapeutic perspective aimed at maladjusted individuals and a public health perspective aiming at preventing maladjustment in populations.” Mental hygiene psychiatrists became increasingly directed towards well-adjusted individuals and away from the mentally ill (Pols, 1997).

In 1950, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene merged with two other organizations, forming the National Association for Mental Health.

A Few Closing Remarks by Psychology Fanatic

Today, self-care seems to be the preferred term for mental hygiene. As individuals we must actively attend to our mental health to maintain stability against the growing pressures. Accordingly, we also should support social programs designed to prevent mental illness.

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Chakraborty, K., & , (2016). Mental Hygiene and Mental Health. Bengal Journal of Psychiatry.

Gabor, Mate (2011). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition

Gray, John P. (1878). MENTAL HYGIENE. American Journal of Psychiatry.

Horney, Karen (1950/2013). Neurosis and Human Growth: The struggle toward self-realization. Routledge; 1st edition

Mandell, Wallace (1955). The Realization of an Idea. John Hopkins.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Diathesis Stress Model. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-27-2021. Accessed 4-25-2023

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Whole Person Wellness. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-24-2021. Accessed 4-26-2023

Pols, Johannes Coenraad, (1997) Managing the mind: The culture of American mental hygiene, 1910-1950.” Penn Libraries. University of Pennsylvania.

Salmon, Thomas W. (2006). Mental Hygiene. American Journal of Public Health, 96(10), 1740.

American Psychiatric Association (2022). What is mental illness? Published 11-2022, Accessed 4-26-2023.

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