Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Web Secret #214: Let There Be Light

Bad news sells newspapers, and every other type of media, so feel good stories about the Internet are few and far between. This week, time for some good news.

In 1945, famed director John Huston, then a major in the Signal Corps, was asked by the US Army to film a documentary about their approach to treating "shell-shock," what we call today "post traumatic stress disorder." Huston was given unprecedented access to the soldiers, treating psychiatrists, therapeutic procedures, and grounds of the massive Mason General Hospital on Long Island.

The documentary, "Let There Be Light," pioneered unscripted interview techniques to take an unprecedented look into the psychological wounds of war. Its remarkable innovations in style and subject were at least a decade ahead of their time. Upon its completion, the Army promptly censored the film, and it wasn't publicly shown until 1980, when a poor quality print was premiered at a John Huston retrospective.

Recently, the National Film Preservation Foundation lovingly restored the film, and it can now be viewed in its entirety on the NFPF website.

The film is fascinating on a dozen different levels. Clinicians will be interested by the PTSD symptoms of World War II veterans, and treatment modalities used including group therapy, occupational therapy, and the use of Sodium Pentothal to treat "psychoneurosis."

History buffs will notice that everyone is constantly smoking, and note that the hospital patient population is integrated, while remembering that the armed forces remained racially segregated until 1948.

Anyone who has worked in an inpatient psychiatric facility will be amazed by the fact that no one is precipitously discharged from the hospital because their insurance has run out - the typical course of treatment was 8 weeks long.

As for me, I was mesmerized. My exposure to the 1940s comes from viewing photos, reading books, and seeing old movies. To see real patients and psychiatrists, view actual treatment was simply amazing.

I realized that ultimately, I could never understand them, anymore than they could ever understand me.

I was separated from these young soldiers, these psychiatrists, by over 60 years of history, social change, and scientific progress.

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