Educating Indian Head Exhibit

Educating Indian Head Exhibit

By Kathleen Kendall, University of Southampton

ink sketch of 1950s man and woman in front of prairie grain elevatorsWhen John and Elaine Cumming arrived in the prairie town of Indian Head in 1951 they were acting as part of a larger early effort toward establishing community psychiatry. Before patients could be safely released from mental hospitals into Canadian communities, it was believed necessary to cultivate public support for deinstitutionalization and to foster tolerance and understanding of individuals with mental health problems.

Such social conditions, mental health “experts” like the Cummings claimed, would help patients to reintegrate into society as well as experience fewer relapses and readmissions. Furthermore, public education on “mental hygiene” (the science and practice of mental health, as it was then called) would prevent individuals from becoming unwell in the first place.

Good mental hygiene was considered to be particularly important in the post-Second World War period. Recovering from the trauma of battle, Canada now faced a new kind of “cold war” ushered in by the atomic age. Poor mental hygiene, leading psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists said, had contributed to the development of fascism and Nazism. The prevention of emotional instability and disorder, therefore, was regarded as necessary not only for global peace but also for human survival. The goal of creating a stronger, healthier democratic nation by using science to shape or engineer society was shared by powerful philanthropic, charitable, psychiatric, academic and government bodies. Alliances, therefore, were formed with the express purpose of creating ideal citizens by educating Canadians in the principles of good mental hygiene, at least that was the theory.

Central to the educational message promoted by these coalitions was the notion that childhood experiences profoundly shape later life. Poor mental health, it was argued, was rooted in a bad childhood for which parents were largely blamed, although schools were sometimes held accountable too.  Girls and boys with problematic upbringings, whether authoritarian, neglectful or overly permissive, were said to be at risk of abnormal development and behaviour.  However, definitions and understandings of what was considered to be “normal” and “abnormal” reflected the biases and prejudices of the experts who made such determinations.  For example, mental health education typically represented the ideal family as being white, nuclear and based on heterosexual marriage with a clear sexual division of labour. The notion of “mental hygiene” was often informed by eugenics.

In the years following the end of the war, Canadians were exposed to a proliferation of mental health educational programs via radio, newspaper, magazines and film. To determine the impact of these campaigns, the experts involved in promoting deinstitutionalization and mental hygiene felt it important to gather some hard data through research. The Indian Head experiment, highlighted in this exhibit, was the most extensive and intensive of such studies to be undertaken in the early post-war period, and possibly since.

The Indian Head Experiment demonstrated that although the efforts of researchers John and Elaine Cumming to change attitudes did have some impact upon citizens, it was not in the direction they anticipated. The mental health education program they implemented was ignored by many of the town’s occupants and vigorously challenged by some others. Critical scholars influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, have come to see educational efforts designed to create ideal citizens as examples of what they term “governmentality.” By this, they mean that instructional activities and the media can be used to regulate people so that they behave in ways desired by those in authority. In such a way, power operates not through force but by encouraging people to believe in the ideas being communicated to them by “experts” and to live their lives in alignment with these understandings. However, the concept of governmentality also holds that “ordinary” men and women can resist efforts to control them and exert their own, although limited, power.

This exhibit is based on the following article:  Kendall, Kathleen “From Closed Ranks to Open Doors: Elaine and John Cummings’ Mental Health Education Experiment in 1950s Saskatchewan,” Histoire Sociale/Social History 44:88 (November 2011), 257-286.