Mental Health America's symbol is a 300-pound bell created from chains and shackles that had been used in asylums across the country. The inscription reads, “Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness.” Photographer: Max Taylor
At the turn of the 20th century, Wall Street financier Clifford W. Beers was so distraught over the 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 out 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.
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 that 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 with 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 Hygiene. One year later he teamed up with philosopher William James and psychiatrist Adolf Meyer to create the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. Its goals were to improve attitudes toward mental illnesses 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 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.