Getting on in Gotham: the midtown Manhattan study and putting the social in psychiatry

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In the spring of 1962, a series of alarming headlines greeted American newspaper readers. From "New York Living for Nuts Only" and "One in Five Here Mentally Fit" to "Scratch a New Yorker, and What Do You Find?" and "City Gets Mental Test, Results are Real Crazy," the stories highlighted the shocking and, to some, incredible statistics that fewer than one in five (18.5%) Manhattanites had good mental health. Approximately a quarter of them had such bad mental health that they were effectively incapacitated, often unable to work or function socially. The headlines were gleaned from Mental Health in the Metropolis (1962), the first major output of the Midtown Manhattan Study, a large-scale, interdisciplinary project that surveyed the mental health of 1660 white Upper East Side residents between the ages of 20 and 59. One of the most significant social psychiatry projects to emerge following the Second World War, the Midtown Manhattan Study endeavored to "test the general hypothesis that biosocial and sociocultural factors leave imprints on mental health which are discernible when viewed from the panoramic perspective provided by a large population." Despite initial media and academic interest, however, the Midtown Manhattan Study's findings were soon forgotten, as American psychiatry turned its focus to individual – rather than population – psychopathology, and turned to the brain – rather than the environment – for explanations. Relying on archival sources, contemporary medical and social scientific literature, and oral history interviews, this article explains why the Midtown Manhattan Study failed to become more influential, concluding that its emphasis on the role of social isolation and poverty in mental illness should be taken more seriously today.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-404
Number of pages20
JournalCulture, Medicine, and Psychiatry
Issue number3
Early online date7 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2021


  • Gotham
  • Midtown Manhattan Study
  • social
  • psychiatry
  • post-war
  • New York
  • mental health
  • psychopathology


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