Mental Health on the Prairie

By, Phoenix Robertson

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! Mental Health Month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health discussions and wellness in Americans’ lives. In honor of this occasion and due to my large and pre-established interest in the 1970s American hit-television series Little House on the Prairie, I will be discussing the portrayal of mental health and psychology inside the show, as well as the historical backgrounds. Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this article, feel free to visit my previous Little House on the Prairie article, “Intersectional Feminism on the Prairie,” for a valuable refresher on the characters and setting of Little House on the Prairie. If you’re ready to embark with me on yet another prairie adventure, then saddle up your pony and let’s ride! 

Mental Health in the 1800s and 1970s

Mental health and psychology were not considered socially acceptable topics of discussion in the 19th century, nor were they very well known about. Many phenomena that would now be associated with chemical imbalances in the brain or mental illnesses were considered to be the effects of a lack of religion or the demonstration of the “purity of a person’s soul”. This is supported by the fact that religious leaders, ministers, and reverends were often called in to deal with matters of the mind, which at the time was understood to be an extension of a person’s soul in the Christian faith. Local ministers or other religious officials were often large authority figures in their towns and were a part of all aspects of local life. Take for example the role of Reverend Alden on Little House on the Prairie. Reverend Alden, played by Dabbs Greer, was one of the most influential members of Walnut Grove’s infrastructure. He was a member of the town board, voted on their issues, and was consulted on many of the town folk’s personal matters– including matters of the mind. When Charles Ingalls was struggling greatly with his deathly ill son’s coma-like state, Reverend Alden was asked as an authority equal to that of the town’s lone doctor on what to do about the boy and the state of Charles. 

In order to examine the full extent of the show’s commentary on mental health and mental health awareness, the time during which the show was produced must also be considered. Little House on the Prairie was produced during the 1970s, a time where the field concerning mental health and psychology was growing, especially when compared to the ideas held by those just a century prior. While mental health was still a relatively taboo topic, medications and treatment plans began to grow in availability to many in-need individuals. Little House on the Prairie’s semi-casual discussion of mental health related topics was also due to Michael Landon’s (one of the show’s main actors and producers) own passion for discussing these issues. The same can also be seen on Landon’s series Highway to Heaven, which also starred one of his Little House on the Prairie co-star Victor French.  

“Soldier’s Return” Season 2: Episode 21 

Over the show’s nine-season run Little House on the Prairie highlighted the mental health struggles of many of their characters, which were representative of the real-life-events of many people during the 1800s–and the 1970s when the show aired. One example of the show dealing with mental health is the depiction of the struggles of Granville Whipple in the episode “Soldier’s Return“. Granville, who was played by Richard Mulligan, was a Civil War veteran who came to the small town of Walnut Grove to visit his mother Mrs. Whipple, played by Queenie Smith. At the beginning of the episode, Granville is described as an accomplished man with wonderful musical talents and great pride in himself for being able to serve his country, but as time goes on, his struggles with PTSD and drug addiction are revealed. It is said that Granville developed a morphine addiction after being prescribed the drug for an injury he received in battle. Granville began to use the drug to cope with his fears and memories of the war, which resulted in violent outbursts when he could not obtain morphine. This episode dealt with a highly discussed topic during the 1970s–the psychological effects of war. Granville’s character is a symbol of the soldiers in not only the Civil War, but also the Vietnam War, who often suffered severe mental and physical consequences for their involvement in war. The Vietnam War began in 1955 and ended in 1975. Over this twenty year battle, 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties were recorded. Many more who were fortunately able to return home to the states dealt with the mental repercussions of war, often including anxiety and PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The sympathy and understanding shown to Granville in this episode mirrors that of other television specials of the time which were meant to communicate ideas about the importance of compassion towards all.

“A Child with No Name” Season 9: Episode 18

A second example of the series’ meaningful illustration of mental health can be seen in , “A Child with No Name”. In this episode, the show’s main protagonist Laura Ingalls, at the time Laura Ingalls-Wilder, gives birth to her first son. Due to her family’s history of infant mortality when it comes to sons, Laura has her baby monitored by Doc Baker, played by Kevin Hagen, in an attempt to ensure his survival. The doctor comes almost every day to examine the nameless child and everyday his answer is the same: “He is perfectly healthy.” Within a few days of her child being born, Laura wakes up and discovers that he has suddenly died. Over the course of this episode, Laura cycles through different phases of grief and depression. She accused Doc Baker of neglect, murder, and lying to her about the health of her child. Doc Baker insisted that he had seen no ill-boding signs in the child’s health and that he was clueless as to how things had taken such a sharp turn for the worse. As Laura’s accusations continued, Doc Baker’s credibility in town dwindled, eventually resulting in his only patient being a donkey. Out of fear of harming the town further, Doc Baker decided to leave Walnut Grove. Just before stepping into the stage coach, Doc Baker is alerted that Laura’s oldest child, Rose, has fallen ill and is in need of medical attention. Luckily, Doc Baker was able to save Laura’s child and she made a full recovery. This allowed for Laura and the rest of the township to see that Doc Baker is still a competent doctor and a committed member of the Walnut Grove community. Doc Baker remained on the show until the end of the series.

It is now believed that the Ingalls family carried a genetic condition which caused the death of their male children, but due to the bounds of the “modern medicine” then, this condition was not able to be revealed or treated. Without knowing about this potential reason for her son’s death, Laura’s mind jumped to the conclusion that someone had to be at fault–and who better to blame than the doctor that didn’t visit her son everyday. Laura’s accusations were deadly serious, and were to the viewer of course untrue, but because of her fragile state, Laura was unable to think logically about her situation. This is a common pattern among individuals dealing with loss. In a show as often black and white as Little House on the Prairie–by this I mean the good people are always good and the bad people are always bad–it is important to show a more human side to these characters. Yes, Laura Ingalls is a “good” character. Yes, her son died unexpectedly and tragically. Yes, she accused Doc Baker of being a murderer when he was not. No, she is not a terrible person. Oftentimes when we as humans go through hardship, we act in ways that we may not otherwise. This doesn’t make you any less of a decent human being. It is important to realize that everyone is human, even our favorite “good guys” like the people of Walnut Grove.

“A Promise to Keep” and “The Return of Mr. Edwards” Season: 8 Episode 19

Fan favorite character Mr. Isaiah Edwards, played by Victor French and real-life close friend to leading actor Michael Landon, also had his fair share of struggles. Over the course of the show, Isaiah’s history of alcoholism and how this corrupted his previous marriage and family was frequently discussed, especially in the episode “A Promise to Keep”. This episode showcased the many negative effects that substance abuse, specifically alcoholism, can have on a person’s relationships. In “A Promise to Keep”, Charles’ and Isaiah’s friendship splinters greatly when Isaiah’s drunken carelessness almost kills the Ingalls’ son Albert. Isaiah had fallen back into his drinking habits to cope with reality due to his son’s murder. Isaiah is extremely remorseful for his actions, and while the two are eventually able to rebuild their relationship, there is always a small damper that can never be completely fixed. This is just one example of the many dangerous effects that substance abuse can have on a person. 

A second example of Mr. Edwards’ struggle with his mental health can be seen in the episode “The Return of Mr. Edwards.” This episode begins with the Ingalls family receiving a letter from Isaiah’s wife Grace, stating that due to a recent logging accident, Isaiah has lost some of his mobility and has become severely depressed. Charles and Laura then travel to the Big Woods, where the Edwards live, to try to convince him to have hope. While in the Big Woods, Isaiah reveals that after his injury–a tree fell on him, making his legs almost completely paralyzed–and his son’s murder, he felt that his life was over. Charles and Laura were eventually able to convince Mr. Edwards to discover a new purpose for his life by taking him on a hunting trip where he must decide if he will continue to live life like a dead man or someone reborn. Through his connections with Laura and Charles, Isaiah decides to take back his life and make the most of the time he has left. This episode, while on the more serious side of the Little House on the Prairie episodes, carries a bittersweet message that no matter what happens to you, your existence is still important and you are an important person. 
Thank you for reading this article and I hope that it has motivated you to be aware of your own mental health and the mental health of those around you. If you are someone you know is struggling with their mental health, do not hesitate to contact the proper authorities. You can find a list of these phone numbers and websites for North Carolina here. The national mental health helplines can be found here. Stay safe and remember that you are human. 


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