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Can J Public Health. 2014 Jul 11;105(4):e280-6.

Public health perspectives on postwar mental health: gender, housing and family in Kitimat, British Columbia, 1950s.

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Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary.



The aftermath of World War II brought rapid change to the ways in which Canadian communities were designed and how their populations experienced their lives. The purpose of this study is to explore how mental health was understood and experienced in the context of the postwar period using the well-documented construction (in 1953) of the comprehensively planned, resource-based community of Kitimat, British Columbia as a case example.


A qualitative content analysis of primary sources from Kitimat's archival collections was conducted, and eight semi-structured, in-depth interviews were held with long-term residents to enrich the historical data. Findings were then interpreted to construct a historical narrative informed by an operationalized definition of mental health.


Kitimat residents in the 1950s understood and experienced their lives in ways consistent with contemporary holistic conceptualizations of mental health, namely, their daily living experiences. A historic interpretation revealed that mental health was understood as something achieved and maintained through conformance with postwar ideals for gendered norms and the family unit, as well as being experienced through issues like housing and expectations of community living.


Understanding mental health demands consideration of local circumstances of time and place. The use of historical analysis in public health provides important evidence for how mental health was understood in the past, in a place and at a time when explicit modern language was limited, and illustrates the prominent role of the social determinants of health vis-à-vis population well-being. This article may be of special interest to those working collaboratively in the fields of public health and urban planning.


20th century; British Columbia; Public health; history; mental health; urban planning

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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