1940s Mental Health Radio Plays


1940s Mental Health Radio Plays Unit

Green Chinese takeaway boxTakeaways

  • Relate social norms and notions of normal to the construction of good mental health, as viewed by mental health experts, the media and the wider society
  • Appreciate the power of authoritative knowledge brokers, i.e. mental health practitioners, the media, and public mental health educators in constructing notions of “good” mental health

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We heard about two 25-minute mental health radio plays from the 1940s, and decided to have them reenacted for Mad School by Ryerson University students. The radio plays can be listened to in class or on-line.  Analysis and context audio segments by historical sociologist Kathleen Kendall, the researcher who discovered the plays, can be found in Components Self-Guided Learning.

Radio Play 1: The Daydreamer     Transcription
Donald’s father is unfair and distant, and his mother undermines his sense of accomplishment and ability.  No wonder the troubled teenager escapes into daydreaming, with tragic results.

Radio Play 2: The Woman Who Turns Back     Transcription
Frances is a reliable young woman with a good job and a nice boyfriend. When her roommate Ruby recklessly quits her job and foolishly loses her boyfriend, she turns to Frances for support. Affection and disaster ensue.

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Head and shoulder's photo of Kathleen Kendall
Historical sociologist and commentator Kathleen Kendall

There are two reasons why these 1940s CBC radio plays were selected as teaching tools.  First, the plays and professional commentaries illuminate the way in which human behavior might be considered ordinary from one perspective, and a medical or social problem from another.  The weight placed on the expert commentaries in the CBC broadcasts makes clear the power of the professional point of view, which is undiminished to this day.

Second, we see here that “expert” knowledge about mental health and human behavior is heavily influenced by prejudices and concerns of the historical moment.  When Jack Griffin was typing out his commentaries in the late 1940s, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness (and a crime), a woman’s place was thought to be in the home, and strong families and healthy citizens were seen as insurance against the threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation.  If these plays were being created and broadcast today, the dramas would reflect a different set of prejudices and concerns.

You might find these radio reenactments entertaining to listen to, but what is important is the way they expose historical expectations of “normal” and the role of authoritative knowledge brokers in shaping these expectations.  These components help us understand that “normal” is a highly malleable construct, always shaped by current attitudes, and strongly influenced by the ideas of the psych professions. This is an invaluable insight, not just for mental health practitioners, but also for students, educators, and members of the general public.

Three green gears working together within a picture frameComponents in Context

Two 1940s radio plays re-enacted for the Stigma and Discrimination Module take us into the heart of Canada’s first public mental health educational campaign.  A joint venture between the fledgling CBC radio and the organization that we know today as the Canadian Mental Health Association, The Daydreamer and The Woman Who Turns Back were aired on the national radio network.  These dramas were part of the award-winning In Search of Ourselves series, designed to teach Canadians about what psych professionals then considered good mental health, healthy child development, and appropriate family relations.

How were these broadcasts created?  Taking direction from the case files of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, CBC scriptwriter Len Peterson crafted dramatic sketches with provocative titles like, “An Adolescent Gang,” “What’s Wrong With the Child,” and “The Unmarried Girl Becomes a Mother.”  After each play, a mental health professional would deliver a commentary, encouraging listeners to interpret the intended messages “correctly.” The commentator featured in our two plays was Dr. Jack Griffin, who was both a psychiatrist and psychologist and an important figure in the Canadian mental health world from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Learners and educators who wish to learn more about early mental health education programs for Canadians can visit Kendall’s research exhibit Educating Indian Head.