‘All I Needed Was To Get It Out Of My System’: The Early Use Of Comics For Mental Health Therapy In America

Chic Young’s Blondie was one of the most popular and enduring American comic strips. In the early 1950s, Newton Bigelow, then Head of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, began to use the characters in his therapeutic sessions. By the standards of his time, Bigelow was an innovatory therapist.


For example, he was one of the first therapists in America to introduce group therapy into regular practice. The specially commissioned comic books that Bigelow and Young developed represent an extremely early example of what comics can do very well:

they allowed a pioneering psychotherapist and a major comic artist to convey important ideas about mental health to audiences which at that time might otherwise not have heard of them. Why this approach would ultimately be ignored is not due to their failure, but due to the historical circumstances which I discuss below.

When Bigelow was in charge of the mental health of the city of New York, a vast gamut of concepts and approaches to the mind (and mental health) were beginning to percolate from psychology and psychiatry into the modern American consciousness, at all levels.

In particular, this is the period when therapy, at least partially, begins to be democratised in America. Reading the comics specially produced for the Department of Mental Hygiene, it’s clear that they were intended for a broad adult audience, many of whom may not have had a high educational level. Bigelow had begun by using the standard strips – humorous accounts of a ‘typical’ newlywed American couple – but he progressed to having special comic books commissioned to deal with mental health issues.

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