History of the Organization and the Movement
In the 17th and 18th centuries, individuals with mental illnesses underwent great suffering at the hands of American society. Viewed as demon-possessed or characterized as senseless animals, they were subject to deplorable treatment.
Physical and mental abuse was commonplace and the widespread use of physical restraints, “straight-jackets and heavy arm and leg chains” deprived patients of their dignity and freedom. Nineteenth century reformers, such as Phillip Pinel in France and Dorthea Dix, made great strides in promoting humane treatment of those with mental illness but conditions were still far from ideal.
In 1900, Clifford Beers, a Yale graduate and young businessman, suffered an acute breakdown brought on by the illness and death of his brother. Shortly after a suicide attempt, Beers was hospitalized in a private Connecticut mental institution. At the mercy of untrained, incompetent attendants, he was subject to degrading treatment and mental and physical abuses.
Beers spent the next few years hospitalized in various institutions, the worst being a state hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. The deplorable treatment he received in these institutions sparked a fearless determination to reform care for individuals with mental illnesses in the United States and abroad.
In 1908, Beers changed mental health care forever with the publication of A Mind That Found Itself, an autobiography chronicling his struggle with mental illness and the shameful state of mental health care in America. The book had an immediate impact, spreading his vision of a massive mental health reform movement across land and oceans.
The actualization of the movement began that same year when Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene. The Society expanded the following year, forming the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The Society, both in Connecticut then nationally, set forth the following goals:
- To improve attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill;
- To improve services for the mentally ill;
- To work for the prevention of mental illness and promote mental health.
The National Committee began fulfilling its mission of change immediately, initiating successful reforms in several states. In 1920 the Committee produced a set of model commitment laws which were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states. The Committee also conducted influential studies on mental health, mental illness, and treatment, prompting real changes in the mental health care system.
The First International Congress for Mental Hygiene in 1930 was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Beers’ career. The Congress convened 3,042 officially registered participants from forty-one countries “with many more actually in attendance” for constructive dialogue about fulfilling the mission of the Mental Health Movement. The Movement was well established when Beers died in 1943.
In an historic merger, three organizations, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (also known by its other historic names), the National Mental Health Foundation, and the Psychiatric Foundation “an offshoot of the American Psychological Organization primarily concerned with fund-raising, banded together on September 13, 1950 to form the National Association of Mental Health (NAMH).
NAMH continued Beers’ mission with new vigor.” In 1961, five years of participation on Congress’ Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Health culminated in the release of the landmark report Action for Mental Health, an influential program for improving government mental health services. Through television programs, literature distribution, and other media, NAMH continued to educate the American public on mental health issues and promote mental health awareness.
In 1979, the NAMH became the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). In 1980, NMHA’s three-year leadership role in raising grass-roots support and cooperation with the federal government resulted in the development and passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. The Act fostered the continued growth of America’s Community Mental Health Centers which allow individuals with mental illnesses to remain in their home communities with minimal hospitalization.
NMHA created commissions on the insanity defense, the mental health of the Nation’s unemployed and homeless, the mental health of rural Americans, and the prevention of mental-emotional disabilities. These commissions examined the status of each issue and directed future reform efforts.
In 1990, NMHA 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.
As the years progressed, NMHA continued to strive to fulfill Clifford Beers’ goals, spreading tolerance and awareness, improving mental health services, preventing mental illness, and promoting mental health. Its massive National Public Education Campaign on Clinical Depression, begun in 1993, continues to inform Americans on the symptoms of depression and provide information about treatment. NMHA also became involved in the struggle for parity of mental health benefits with other health coverage.
The Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 was a great victory, barring insurance companies and large self-insured employers from placing annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health coverage. NMHA was at the forefront of all efforts to win passage of the bill. Current efforts are underway to gain broad-based parity, which covers a broad range of diagnoses, in all states. Collaboration with the federally-supported National GAINS Center for People with Co-Occurring Disorders in the Justice System has produced the Justice for Juveniles Initiative.
The special mental health needs of youth in the juvenile justice system are shamefully neglected. This collaboration holds the promise of reforming the juvenile justice system so that these needs are addressed.
Last, but not least, in November 2006, NMHA became Mental Health America, an organization fully and completely dedicated to helping the millions of Americans effected by mental illnesses achieve mental and physical wellness, as well as, expanding its outreach efforts to ensure all Americans are better equipped to manage the day-to-day stressors of life and ultimately “bring wellness home.”