In 1909, Adolf Meyer found himself in a heated debate with psychologist William James. James, who had agreed to join a committee to improve America’s mental health, had described the movement’s moniker—mental hygiene—as “insipid.” He preferred the word “insanity” since it needed no explanation and would capture public attention and support.
“[One of] the reasons for which I have a cold shiver for anything that associates with the word insanity,” Meyer explained to his peer, is the word’s “connotation of the narrower psychotherapy… and the unfortunate admixed psychoquackery.” In contrast, Meyer felt the term mental hygiene “implies no hocus-pocus and offers plain and simple and strong and reliable helps to success in living.”
Meyer won out—for the time being. James withdrew his motion, and the National Committee on Mental Hygiene was established.
Fast-forward to the autumn of 2002. The School’s Department of Mental Hygiene officially became the Department of Mental Health. Echoing James’ viewpoint, interim chair William Eaton describes the term as more easily understood by the public. Others seem to adhere to the Meyer line (and his warnings of “psychoquackery”). They feel that the phrase mental health has connotations too close to self-help. As professor emeritus Wallace Mandell says, “It implies that with healthy eating and exercise you’ll be fine.”
When the faculty debated the new name, there was no consensus. They came up with such suggestions as the Department of the Science of the Mind, but no one in the group battled for the word hygiene.
“Mental hygiene is difficult to explain to outsiders,” says Eaton. “You have to explain the entire history.” —Martha Thomas