LOOKING BACK: The History of Mental Health America
The history of Mental Health America is the remarkable story of one person who turned a personal struggle with mental illness into a national movement and of the millions of others who came together to fulfill his vision.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Clifford W. Beers, a recent graduate of Yale College and a newly-minted Wall Street financier, suffered his first episode of bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) following the illness and death of his brother. In the throes of his illness, Beers attempted to take his own life by jumping out a third story window. Seriously injured but still alive, Beers ended up in public and private hospitals in Connecticut for the next three years.
While in these institutions, Beers learned firsthand of the deficiencies in care as well as the cruel and inhumane treatment people with mental illnesses received. He witnessed and experienced horrific abuse at the hands of his caretakers. At one point during his institutionalization, he was placed in a straightjacket for 21 consecutive nights.
Upon his release, Beers was resolved to expose the maltreatment of people with mental illnesses and to reform care. In 1908, he published his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, which roused the nation to the plight of people with mental illnesses and set a reform movement into motion. In the book, Beers declared, “As I penetrated and conquered the mysteries of that dark side of my life, it no longer held any terror for me. I have decided to stand on my past and look the future in the face.”
On February 19, 1909, Beers, along with philosopher William James and psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, embraced that future by creating the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, later the National Mental Health Association and what we know today as the Mental Health America.
The organization set forth the following goals:
- to improve attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill;
- to improve services for people with mental illness ; and
- to work for the prevention of mental illnesses and the promotion of mental health.
From that momentous day, Mental Health America built a legacy of change and progress. The following are selected highlights from Mental Health America’s nine decades of service.
Clifford Beers sparked the mental health reform movement with an insightful autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, which chronicled his struggle with mental illness and the shameful conditions he and millions of others endured in mental institutions throughout the country. (1908)
Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene in 1908, which would expand a year later to form the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The Committee was the predecessor to the National Mental Health Association, which later became Mental Health America on Nov. 16, 2006. (1908)
Mental Health America facilitated the creation of more than 100 child guidance clinics in the United States aimed at prevention, early intervention and treatment. (1910)
At the request of the Surgeon General, Mental Health America drafted a mental ‘hygiene’ program, which was adopted by the Army and the Navy, in preparation for the First World War. (1917)
Mental Health America produced a set of model commitment laws, which were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states. (1920)
Mental Health America convened the First International Congress on Mental Hygiene in Washington D.C., bringing together more than 3,000 individuals from 41 countries. (1930)
The “National Mental Health Act,” which created the National Institute of Mental Health, passed as a result of Mental Health America’s advocacy. (1946)
Mental Health America launched Mental Health Week (which eventually became Mental Health Month) with the Jaycees to educate Americans about mental illness and mental health. (1949)
To symbolize its mission of change, Mental Health America commissioned the casting of the Mental Health Bell from chains and shackles that restrained people with mental illnesses in decades past. (1953)
Mental Health America joined and supported the Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Health, which was created and funded by Congress. (1955)
Mental Health America convened the National Leadership Conference on Action for Mental Health, in which 100 national voluntary organizations participated. (1962)
Congress passed the “Community Mental Health Centers Act” (CMHC) authorizing construction grants for community mental health centers. Mental Health America played a key role in having this legislation enacted and signed by President Kennedy. (1963)
Community Mental Health Centers Act calls for deinstitutionalization and increased community services. (1963)
Mental Health America successfully advocated for inclusion of mandated mental heath services in Medicare. (1966)
Mental Health America advocated for renewal of the CMHC Act and for increased appropriations. (1969)
Mental Health America produced and distributed the film Only Human, which aired on more than 150 television stations, to improve public understanding of mental illness and public acceptance of persons with mental illnesses. (1971)
President Nixon impounded funds appropriated for the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Health America was instrumental in reversing the decision. (1972)
Acting on a lawsuit in which Mental Health America participated, a federal judge ordered the release of $52 million in impounded funds voted by Congress for community mental health centers. (1973)
The U.S. Civil Service Commission acceded to Mental Health America’s demand that a “Have you ever been mentally Ill?” question be removed from federal government employment forms. (1974)
President Carter established the President’s Commission on Mental Health, the first comprehensive survey of mental healthcare since the 1950s. Many Mental Health America volunteers were named to the Commission and its task forces. (1977)
Mental Health America helped to form the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), a foundation formed with the purpose of raising private sector funds to support research on mental illnesses. (1981)
Mental Health America sponsored the National Commission on the Insanity Defense public hearings, co-chaired by former Sen. Birch Bayh and Mental Health America President-Elect Thomas H. Brinkley. (1982)
EEOC chief Patricia Roberts Harris chaired Mental Health America’s National Commission on Unemployment and Mental Health. (1983)
Mental Health America’s public policy initiative resulted in the passage of the Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act by Congress. (1985)
Mental Health America and the Families for the Homeless launched the development of a major nationwide photographic exhibit depicting the human side of “Homeless in America.” (1987)
Mental Health America organized the National Action Commission on the Mental Health of Rural Americans to study service and policy issues regarding the delivery of mental health services to citizens living in rural areas whose lives have been impacted by major social and economic change. (1987)
Mental Health America released its Report of the Invisible Children Project, which revealed the gross neglect and over-institutionalization of children with emotional disorders in the U.S. (1989)
Mental Health America and the American Red Cross jointly published and distributed more than 250,000 copies of When the Yellow Ribbons Come Down, a guidebook to help Operation Desert Storm veterans and their families cope with readjusting to life at home. (1990)
Mental Health America played a leading role in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects mentally and physically disabled Americans from discrimination in such areas as employment, public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and state and local government services. (1990)
Mental Health America launched its National Public Education Campaign on Clinical Depression with an unprecedented media launch reaching millions of Americans through public service announcements and advertising. (1993)
Mental Health America, in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Institute of Mental Health, organized the first comprehensive conference on The State of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Black America. (1994)
Mental Health America helped secure passage of the “Mental Health Parity Act,” the first federal legislation to bring more equity to health insurance coverage of mental health care. (1996)
Mental Health America was instrumental in President Clinton’s decision to end discrimination in mental health insurance coverage for 9 million federal workers and their families by enacting mental health insurance parity for federal workers. (1998)
Mental Health America released a nationwide study that revealed the top reasons individuals refused to seek help for anxiety disorders, the most common mental illnesses, which included shame, fear, and embarrassment. (1998)
Mental Health America released the first-ever survey of children that reported that 78 percent of teens who were gay or thought to be gay were teased or bullied in their schools and communities. (2002)
Mental Health America released the results of a survey on national awareness of bipolar disorder, which showed that two-thirds of Americans hold limited, if any, knowledge of this common illness. (2003)
Mental Health America’s advocacy resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling declaring the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, thereby removing 73 individuals from death row. (2005)
Mental Health America, along with a coalition of mental health agencies and advocates, succeeded in getting the Mental Health Parity Act signed into law. (2008)