Mental hygiene was a movement in psychology that started in New York during the early 1900s. The founders of the movement believed that a person’s experiences in life were crucial in determining the state of that individual’s mental health. For this reason, they generally focused on methods of early detection and prevention of mental illness. Eventually the mental hygiene movement evolved into the mental health movement, and many of the ideas they favored became incorporated as key parts of mainstream psychology.
People involved in the mental hygiene movement believed everything that happened to a person would gradually have an impact on his personality. Their research showed that certain life experiences increased the chances for various behavioral disorders and other mental problems. They used this knowledge to educate people in an attempt to change the average person's living environment as a method of prevention.
In the mental hygiene movement, there was a fundamental belief that nearly all the worst problems originated during the early childhood years. For this reason, they focused heavily on training people to raise children effectively so they would never face certain traumatic experiences associated with mental illness. They generally believed that the home environment was the training area where a person’s character was molded, and they felt that parents needed proper education so they could maximize their effectiveness in this task.
Another major focus of the mental hygiene movement was public schooling. They felt it was a good universal platform to implement and experiment with some of their ideas. They pushed for schools to focus on things beyond the normal educational subjects, suggesting that schools were a good place for societies to exert an intelligent influence on the raising of children. Some disapproved of this approach because they saw it as an interference with parental rights to raise children according to personal belief systems.
The mental hygiene movement was generally more on the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate, which has been argued in scientific circles for many years. Those who favor the nature side of the argument believe that most human traits are inherited, while believers in the nurture side believe that life experiences are more important. Over time, scientific research has generally shown results that suggest both sides are at least partially correct. For this reason, some scientists have come to the conclusion that it is more of an equal mix between the two.