Home / Health & Family / Medical Update / A Century of Mental Health

A Century of Mental Health

Published: February 19, 2009

About the author: David L. Shern, Ph.D., one of the nation’s leading mental health experts with more than 30 years of distinguished service in mental health services research and system reform, is the president and CEO of Mental Health America.

This month, Mental Health America is celebrating its 100th anniversary —a remarkable legacy of one man who turned his personal struggle into a national movement.

Around the turn of the 20th century, recent Yale graduate and newly minted Wall Street financier Clifford W. Beers suffered his first episode of bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) and spent the following three years learning firsthand of the inadequate and often cruel treatment of people with mental illnesses.

Upon his release, Beers set out to expose the abuse and reform care. In 1908, his autobiography roused the nation to the plight of people with mental illnesses. And on February 19, 1909, Beers, along with the philosopher William James and psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, created the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, an organization we know today as Mental Health America. The modern mental health movement had begun.

Today, we remain focused on many of the issues highlighted by Beers in a speech delivered in June 1932 to the French National League for Mental Hygiene: a struggle to eradicate stigma, to focus on prevention as well as treatment, and to bring mental illness under the umbrella of care designated for physical illnesses. Consider his words:

“One who founds a movement of vital importance to humanity inevitably builds better than he knows. In my earliest plans and first editions of my autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, the salient features of the mental hygiene movement were outlined as follows: scientific treatment and humane care for the mentally ill; research into the causes and cure of disorders of the mind; and the application of methods and measures for their prevention. The movement, however, is now so broad in scope and purpose that it can be of possible benefit to everyone.

“One [result] is the remarkable and steady change in the attitude of the public toward disorders of the mind, toward those who suffer from them and, also, toward the institutions in which such patients are treated. Indeed, so-called insanity is now widely regarded as a disease and not as a disgrace.

“A second outstanding result of organized work in mental hygiene is the bringing of the medical profession, especially the psychiatrists, into close and continuous cooperation with the lay public, particularly the leaders in education, law, religion, and in social work.

“With this merging of forces, the mental hygiene movement will not only reach its known objectives, but will continue to develop and will endure so long as the mind of man serves as the sanctuary of the divine spark that makes possible such work and such movements as have brought this distinguished audience together in this great amphitheater tonight.”

Inspired by the work of Beers and many others over the past 100 years, Mental Health America continues to transform our nation’s approach to mental health. The Mental Health Parity Act ended discrimination in insurance coverage for people with mental illness, removing some of the financial barriers that have kept people from treatment. We must, and will, continue our efforts to remove the stigma of mental illnesses, effectively treat and prevent mental health conditions, and promote positive mental health as a reality for all.

For more information from Mental Health America about advocacy, education, and support for Americans with mental health conditions, visit mentalhealthamerica.net .

Read More: