The Rise and Fall of Mental Hygiene

  • David FreisEmail author
Part of the Mental Health in Historical Perspective book series (MHHP)


During the inter-war period, mental hygiene grew into an international movement. In Europe, mental hygiene was eagerly appropriated by reform-minded psychiatrists seeking a more proactive role for their discipline. In Germany, this became an uneasy coalition of academic psychiatrists who wanted to extend the social authority of their discipline, often favouring eugenic interventions, and reform-oriented asylum psychiatrists, who sought to improve the institutional treatment of the mentally ill. The 1930 congress in Washington, DC marked the heyday of mental hygiene, but rifts between the German delegation and their international colleagues already were visible. The world economic crisis of the late 1920s and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s severely impacted the international movement, as the ideological gap between German psychiatrists’ focus on eugenics and the American concept of adaptation widened. By 1933, German mental hygiene was virtually indistinguishable from racial hygiene, and participation in international gatherings merely served the propaganda of the ‘Third Reich’. In Switzerland, however, more utopian concepts of mental hygiene continued to flourish.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Ethics, History and Theory of MedicineUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany

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