Ringing out Hope: For 100 Years Mental Health America Has Been Working to Improve the Well-Being of All Citizens

By Edwards, Douglas J. | Behavioral Healthcare Executive, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Ringing out Hope: For 100 Years Mental Health America Has Been Working to Improve the Well-Being of All Citizens


Edwards, Douglas J., Behavioral Healthcare Executive


At the turn of the 20th century, Wall street financial Clifford W. Beers was so distraught over of illness and death of his brother that he attempted to take his own life by jumping out of a third-story window. Suffering with bipolar disorder, he subsequently was hospitalized for three years in private and public institutions in Connecticut. But our of his misery Beers emerged with firsthand knowledge of what it meant to be mentally ill in early 20th-century America--and how the country could better treat people with these diseases. His experience led him to help found what is now known as Mental Health America (MHA), a grassroots consumer advocacy organization that this year celebrates its centennial.

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Giving consumers a voice

While modern-day mental healthcare in the United States focuses on community-based services and people's potential to recover, this, of course, was not the case in the early 20th century. At the time people with serious mental illness could be placed in public institutions for long periods. As communities moved more elderly people with dementia into state hospitals, they became depressing places focused on custodial care, notes Gerald N. Grob, PhD, a professor at Rutgers and a mental health policy historian. Activists began to charge that psychiatric institutions were little more than prisons for people with mental illness. (1) Some patients alleged abuse, and Beers said he was placed in a straightjacket for 21 consecutive nights. He shared his story of mental illness and called for systematic change in his 1908 autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself.

"Until Clifford Beers wrote his book, there was precious little discussion of people severe mental illnesses," says Cynthia Wainscott, a past MHA chair. "Clifford Beers opened that door at a time when people with mental illnesses were not considered fully human. They were easily discarded. They were set aside from society and locked in institutions."

Determined to change the status quo, in 1908 Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygeine. One year later he teamed up with philosopher William James and psychiatrist Adolf Meyer to create the National Committee for Mental Hygeine. Its goals were to improve attitudes toward mental illness and people with them, improve services, and prevent mental illness and promote mental health. This marked the beginning of the association known today as Mental Health America, which now has more than 300 affiliates in 41 states.

MHA's "biggest accomplishment over the last 100 years was launching the organized movement for mental health in the United States and having sustained that with our many colleague organizations that have developed along the way," notes David L. Shern, PhD, MHA's current president and CEO, adding, "We've been involved, in one way or a another, with pretty much every major mental health reform that has occurred in the country over the last century."

Among the many milestones for which MHA can cite its involvement were the creation of child guidance clinics in the early 20th century to promote prevention, early intervention, and treatment; the formation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the 1940s; and passage of the Community Mental Health Centers Act in 1963, Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and various parity bills in the 1990s and 21st century.

And in 1956, MHA visually (and perhaps audibly) committed to a new future for people with mental illness by melting down the chains and shackles from asylums across the country into a 300-pound brass bell that is rung to mark important victories for people with mental illness, such as when federal parity legislation passed last fall. Wainscotr, who has rung the bell, notes that "It represents a movement that was started by Clifford Beers that brought the plight of people with mental illness out into the light of day and began to insist upon more humane treatment and more attention to cures and treatments. …

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