As one of the highest rated shows in U.S. television history, M*A*S*H (1972-1983) utilized the present-day issues of the 1970s and 1980s to generate discourse on a variety of relevant and often controversial topics. While M*A*S*H has been commended for its portrayal of war, race, sexuality, and the women’s rights movement, mental health is a topic that has appeared in every season yet does not receive the same acclaim. Compared to other topics covered by the show, mental health seems small in comparison yet still manages to make an appearance in every season of its eleven year run.
As the seasons progressed, mental health was treated in a much more serious manner. This is especially true in the portrayal of Corporal Maxwell Klinger. Klinger is most well-known for wearing women’s clothing and preforming ridiculous stunts he can receive a Section 8 psychological discharge. In the early seasons, Klinger constantly tells others he is insane and has no reason to be in the army. In the Season Two episode “Radar’s Report,” Dr. Sidney Freedman, tells Klinger he will not sign the Section 8 paperwork for him, but that he will file a report that permanently labels Klinger as “a transvestite and a homosexual.” Klinger refuses to sign any paperwork since he does not want to be labeled as such nor be dishonorably discharged. As the series progressed, Klinger eventually gives up his dreams of a psychological discharge and embraces his role in the MASH unit.
During the early years of M*A*S*H, the show’s comedic plot lines as well as the show’s emphasis on war did not allow for more serious episodes about mental health. The earliest episode dedicated to the portrayal of mental health is Season One’s “Bananas, Crackers and Nuts.” This episode features one of the main characters, Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, feigning mental illness to obtain a pass to go to Tokyo for a few days. While this episode does not approach the subject seriously and can be considered insensitive in its portrayal, it does emphasize the importance of mental stability and mental health. In this episode, Hawkeye learns a lesson by nearly being institutionalized by a military psychiatrist, an outcome which was far more serious than he intended by his behavior. Hawkeye is only saved from his fate by orchestrating a scenario that involves the psychiatrist appearing to sexually assaulting Major Margaret Houlihan, who is both a nurse and a superior officer. This episode encapsulates the early portrayal on mental health in the 1970s, which is very different from later episodes in the series.
Dr. Sidney Freedman became a recurring character on the show as a visiting military psychiatrist. Sidney’s appearance usually indicates an episode will focus on mental health. He tends to focus on psychoanalysis, citing Freudian concepts and lending an ear to the usual cast as they deal with living in a MASH unit three miles from the frontlines of the Korean War. Many of these episodes deal with the stresses of war, and later episodes hint some members of the staff suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These episodes are noticeably darker in tone, tending to portray mental health as a serious thing people must take into consideration as they go about their lives.
While M*A*S*H did romanticize mental health like other popular Hollywood dramas, the wartime setting did allow the show to portray it as a serious issue that can affect anyone. There are often visual cues to indicate if a character is experiencing mental issues, and the series finale even features Hawkeye in a military mental institution after having a psychological breakdown. In many ways the show is completely about mental health, since series creator Larry Gelbart’s initial goal for the series was to portray the various ways people handle war. Going off of that, mental health was bound to be a huge factor.
About this video clip: In this scene from the Series Finale of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (1983), Hawkeye recounts a repressed memory of witnessing a Korean woman kill her own child to Dr. Sidney Freedman while in a military operated mental institution. This scene is one of the most poignant examples of mental health in the series. Most of this episode (which is two hours long) focuses on Hawkeye’s mental trauma from being stationed in Korea.
- New York Times, “Photo of Allan Arbus,” Wikipedia, August 11, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AllanArbusPic.jpg.
- CBS Television, “Photo of Jamie Farr as Max Klinger from the Television Program M.A.S.H..,” Wikimedia Commons, May 2, 1975, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jamie_Farr_Max_Klinger_MASH_1975.JPG.
- CBS Television, “Photo of Alan Alda as Hawkeye from the Television Program M*A*S*H.,” Wikimedia Commons, December 19, 1975, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alan_Alda_Hawkeye_MASH.JPG.