Psychiatric treatment has come a long way during the past
century—over the years, straitjackets and cold wraps have given way to
psychotherapy and medications that address neurochemical problems in the brain
and help people recover from mental illness.
At the turn of the 20th century, however, many people with mental illness
suffered rather than thrived under the conditions that were then common in
One man's struggles to get help during this era led him to establish a
committee that contributed to the enactment of important reforms in mental
health treatment. That committee became what is today known as Mental Health
This year, MHA is celebrating its 100th anniversary and a century's worth
The nonprofit advocacy organization, which is based in Alexandria, Va., has
more than 300 affiliates worldwide and members who are consumers of mental
health care, relatives of people with mental illness, psychiatrists, mental
health professionals, policymakers, and researchers.
MHA founder and Yale graduate Clifford Beers began experiencing the
symptoms of what became known as bipolar disorder after beginning work on Wall
Street as a financier. One day, he attempted suicide by jumping out of a
Beers survived but was seriously injured and spent the next three years in
Connecticut psychiatric hospitals, where he was mistreated by staff. At one
point during his hospitalization, according to MHA, he was placed in a
straitjacket for 21 consecutive nights.
In Beers' 1908 autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, he wrote
about his experiences with mental illness treatment to heighten awareness of
the struggles of those with similar illnesses.
A year later, he created the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which
was renamed the Mental Health Association in 1976, the National Mental Health
Association in 1980, and Mental Health America in 2006.
In 1917 the committee drafted a mental hygiene program at the behest of the
U.S. Surgeon General, and in the 1920s it developed a set of model commitment
laws, which was adopted by several states.
In the 1930s the committee convened the First International Congress on
Mental Hygiene in Washington, D.C. More than 3,000 people from all over the
In the decades that followed, the committee continued to play an active
role in mental health advocacy. In 1946 it was one of the leading advocate
organizations working for passage of the National Mental Health Act, which
established the National Institute of Mental Health.
In 1953 it commissioned the casting of the Mental Health Bell, which was
forged from melted chains and shackles used to restrain people with mental
illness. The bell has served as the organization's symbol ever
MHA President and CEO David Shern, Ph.D., told Psychiatric News
that the Mental Health Bell has long served as a "reminder that the
invisible chains of misunderstanding and discrimination still bind
He added that over the years, leaders in the mental health field have rung
the bell to mark important achievements such as the passage of legislation to
mandate insurance parity.
"It will continue to ring out in the future—for progress in
improving mental health and achieving victory over mental illnesses and
addiction disorders," he stated.
Members of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene worked to enact
various pieces of legislation, including the Community Mental Health Centers
Act, which authorized construction grants for community mental health centers
and pushed for deinstitutionalization.
In the ensuing decade, the committee forced the release of $52 million in
impounded government funds meant to establish community mental health centers
and demanded, successfully, that the question "Have you ever been
mentally ill?" be removed from federal employment applications.
In the 1980s and 1990s under its new name, the National Mental Health
Association, the organization continued to add to its list of achievements.
Among these are
In 2008 further progress was made on the parity front when MHA participated
with a number of other advocacy and professional organizations—including
APA—to ensure that the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health
Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 became law.
"As we celebrate our centennial year," Shern said,"
Mental Health America is determined to continue our work to make mental
health integral to overall health and promote wellness, prevention, early
intervention, education, and access to care for everyone who has a mental or
substance use condition."
More information about Mental Health America is posted at<www.nmha.org>.▪