Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Linnéa J. Hussein, a Clinical Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University, where she is affiliated with the Art, Text, Media concentration in Global Liberal Studies. Today, she shares some insights on a series of videos produced by the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) Department of Psychiatry in 1969 held in the National Library of Medicine’s historical audiovisuals collections and now highlighted on Medicine On Screen.
When one thinks of audio-visual recordings of psychiatric patients in the United States in the 1960s, the distressing images of Frederick Wiseman’s observational documentary Titicut Follies (1967) likely come to mind. Or, perhaps, the horrors of Sam Fuller’s fiction film Shock Corridor (1963).
The Depressive Neurosis series from 1969, housed in the National Library of Medicine’s audiovisual collection, however, bears no resemblance to these films. Instead, the videotape series offers a rare glimpse into the day-to-day world of late 1960s psychiatric practice, in which people with addiction, mental illness, or mental disabilities seek help and are received with an open mind and treated with dignity by the doctors they speak to and the camera crew that tapes them. These videotapes were not meant to circulate publicly, and yet, as astonishing historic records, used and studied responsibly, they exemplify a calm, perhaps a bit dry, but nevertheless respectful treatment of mental health patients that is still not a given in today’s cinematic representations, and as such could, some fifty years after their initial recording, easily serve as important source material for fiction films to come….
The series offers a rare glimpse into the day-to-day world of late 1960s psychiatric practice, in which people with addiction, mental illness, or mental disabilities seek help and are received with an open mind and treated with dignity by the doctors they speak to and the camera crew that records them.
The series was produced by the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) Department of Psychiatry in 1969. Following typical archival practice, these untitled videotapes are named after the first episode on the tape. These episodes were used in the department’s teaching sessions so that medical students could learn how to recognize major psychiatric symptoms. Most episodes are moments from intake interviews, in which the patient is asked to narrate their condition. Usually prompted by the question, “What brought you here?” the patient enters into a dialogue with a psychiatrist or medical student. Professionally shot with a multi-camera set-up, each episode begins with a simple title card stating the number of the recording and the topic. Among the titles are “69.3 Schizophrenia, Paranoid Type,” “69.4 Alcoholic Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Passive Aggressive Personality,” “69.6 Psychosis with Drug Intoxication,” and “69.2 Hermaphrodite.” The patients’ demographics are as diverse as these diagnoses, featuring White and African-American Southerners, with ages that range from sixteen to sixty years old, and a variety of class backgrounds and sexual orientations.
With the help of an archivist at UMMC, I managed to track down and interview people who worked in UMMC’s Department of Psychiatry in the 1960s.
The Depressive Neurosis episodes are short fragments without a cohesive narrative. Sometimes scenes end abruptly with no explanation, sometimes a diagnosis is part of a title, sometimes the title just refers to the number of interviews we are about to watch. The tapes exist in the archive without any further information about the authors or subjects. There is no narrative to the individual episodes, and different archival listings group different episodes together, so that we also cannot easily read a larger framing or narrative from the compilations themselves. How, then, do we make sense of these partial interviews that do not reveal any information about their makers, their use, or the people they feature other than their location? With the help of an archivist at UMMC, I managed to track down and interview people who worked in UMMC’s Department of Psychiatry in the 1960s. In this article, I weave together their memories of the making of the tapes with the information we can gather through the surviving moving images themselves in an effort to piece together a moment of psychiatric media history currently fragmented in the UMMC archive. My goal is to place the tapes into their historic context as well as to discuss their importance for posterity. In doing so, I concentrate on speculations about three main functions of the tapes: (1) the establishment of a catalog of sample lessons for medical lectures, (2) the creation of self-reflexive approaches to therapy, and (3) the accountability created through the act of recording itself.
Function (1): the establishment of a catalog of sample lessons for medical lectures
Most of the tapes deal with cases of sub-differentiations of what was then called schizophrenia followed by multiple episodes on neuroses and anxiety disorders, both acute and chronic. Other titles in the series deal with alcoholism, addiction, sexual orientation, what at the time was called “mental retardation,” teenage angst, and passive-aggressive behavior. Given the range of topics, it seems that the goal in 1969 was to establish a catalog of major psychiatric diagnoses for students to consult.
The use of moving images for psychiatric education is almost as old as the medium itself. The German neurologist Paul Schuster filmed patients exhibiting neurological disorders for the purpose of teaching as early as 1897. Not long thereafter, the Romanian clinician Gheorghe Marinesco was fascinated by the frame-by-frame analysis the new medium offered to his practice. Silent instructional films such as Symptoms in Schizophrenia (James D. Page, University of Rochester School of Medicine, 1930) relied on intertitle cards to give the audience information beyond the filmed patient’s image. The German doctor Hans Hennes remarked in 1910 that while films should never, if possible, replace clinical demonstrations, they have a crucial advantage in portraying patients with a mental disorder, for “they could be projected at any time, whereas psychotic patients often would not produce their symptoms in the lecture room or could not be taken there at all.” In other words, unlike physical conditions, psychiatric disorders cannot be queued up for medical rounds, and it is important for the safety of the patient—as well as for the safety of the doctors—to have a more controllable environment, which films and videotapes provide.
In a refreshing (and rare) way, Nichtenhauser accords an equal amount of respect to the filmmaker as well as to the doctor, instead of seeing the filmmaker as the doctor’s subordinate.
Even though the use of film to teach psychiatry began at the turn of the century and continued through World War II, it was not until the postwar period that the mental-health movement joined other disciplines in their enthusiasm for training and information film. The National Institute of Mental Health of the United States Public Health Service collaborated with the former National Committee for Mental Hygiene to establish the National Mental Health Film Board in 1949. Among other things, the board helped to finance productions for state mental health agencies. Alfred Nichtenhauser’s co-edited volume Films in Psychiatry, Psychology and Mental Health from 1953 offers a contemporaneous look into the production and consumption of mid-century psychiatric films. Nichtenhauser, as well as his co-authors Marie L. Coleman and David S. Ruhe, thought of their book as a guide through the psychiatric motion-picture world for professionals, community organizers, students, as well as patients and their families. What is remarkable is that besides medical accuracy, Nichtenhauser gives astute attention to the quality of filmmaking itself, writing, “There are books on the techniques and structuring of films […] and useful film production courses are given in a few places. Not every specialist, however, has the time and talent needed for such training. The best he can do is find a competent film maker (not a ‘photographer’) with whom to work.” In a refreshing (and rare) way, Nichtenhauser accords an equal amount of respect to the filmmaker as well as to the doctor, instead of seeing the filmmaker as the doctor’s subordinate. When writing about the fields of neurology, psychiatry, and psychology in 1953, Nichtenhauser critiques the lack of sufficient production standards by noting, “Despite the proven effectiveness of motion pictures as a means of professional instruction in these areas, an organized market large enough to attract commercial producers does not yet exist.”…
Linnéa J. Hussein is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University, where she is affiliated with the Art, Text, Media concentration in Global Liberal Studies. Her current research project, The Cinematic Straitjacket, examines discourses on mental illness, race, and disability in fiction, documentary, and news media, to reframe censorship as acts of restriction that privilege comfort and protection over the right to self-represent. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Film Quarterly, Studies in Documentary Film, Social Text, and Film & History.