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Our History

Mental Health America was established by a person with lived experience Clifford W. Beers. During his stays in public and private institutions, Beers witnessed and was subjected to horrible abuse. From these experiences, Beers set into motion a reform movement that took shape as Mental Health America. Read about the Mental Health Bell—The Symbol of Our Movement

Our work has resulted in positive change. We have educated millions about mental illnesses and reduced barriers to treatment and services. As a result of Mental Health America's efforts, many Americans with mental disorders have sought care and now enjoy fulfilling, productive lives in their communities.

Our History by Decade


Looking Back: The History of Mental Health America

(*Content warning: mentions of suicide, death)

The history of Mental Health America is the remarkable story of one person who turned a personal struggle with mental illness into a national movement and of the millions of others who came together to fulfill his vision.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Clifford W. Beers, a recent graduate of Yale College and a newly-minted Wall Street financier, suffered his first episode of bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) following the illness and death of his brother. In the throes of his illness, Beers attempted to take his own life by jumping out a third story window. Seriously injured but still alive, Beers ended up in public and private hospitals in Connecticut for the next three years.

While in these institutions, Beers learned firsthand of the deficiencies in care as well as the cruel and inhumane treatment people with mental illnesses received. He witnessed and experienced horrific abuse at the hands of his caretakers. At one point during his institutionalization, he was placed in a straightjacket for 21 consecutive nights.

Upon his release, Beers was resolved to expose the maltreatment of people with mental illnesses and to reform care. In 1908, he published his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, which roused the nation to the plight of people with mental illnesses and set a reform movement into motion. In the book, Beers declared, As I penetrated and conquered the mysteries of that dark side of my life, it no longer held any terror for me. I have decided to stand on my past and look the future in the face.

On February 19, 1909, Beers, along with philosopher William James and psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, embraced that future by creating the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, later the National Mental Health Association and what we know today as the Mental Health America.


The organization set forth the following goals:

  • to improve attitudes toward mental illness and people living with mental health conditions;
  • to improve services for people with mental health conditions; and
  • to work for the prevention of mental illnesses and the promotion of mental health.

Our Timeline

 


  • 1908

    Clifford Beers sparked the mental health reform movement with an insightful autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, which chronicled his struggle with mental illness and the shameful conditions he and millions of others endured in mental institutions throughout the country.

  • 1908

    Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene in 1908, which would expand a year later to form the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The Committee was the predecessor to the National Mental Health Association, which later became Mental Health America on Nov. 16, 2006.

  • 1910

    Mental Health America facilitated the creation of more than 100 child guidance clinics in the United States aimed at prevention, early intervention and treatment.

  • 1917

    At the request of the Surgeon General, Mental Health America drafted a mental ‘hygiene’ program, which was adopted by the Army and the Navy, in preparation for the First World War.

  • 1920

    Mental Health America produced a set of model commitment laws, which were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states.

  • 1930

    Mental Health America convened the First International Congress on Mental Hygiene in Washington D.C., bringing together more than 3,000 individuals from 41 countries.

  • 1947

    The “National Mental Health Act,” which created the National Institute of Mental Health, passed as a result of Mental Health America’s advocacy.

  • 1949

    Mental Health America launched Mental Health Week (which eventually became Mental Health Month) with the Jaycees to educate Americans about mental illness and mental health.

  • 1953

    To symbolize its mission of change, Mental Health America commissioned the casting of the Mental Health Bell from chains and shackles that restrained people with mental illnesses in decades past.

  • 1955

    Mental Health America joined and supported the Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Health, which was created and funded by Congress.

  • 1962

    Mental Health America convened the National Leadership Conference on Action for Mental Health, in which 100 national voluntary organizations participated.

  • 1963

    Congress passed the “Community Mental Health Centers Act” (CMHC) authorizing construction grants for community mental health centers.  Mental Health America played a key role in having this legislation enacted and signed by President Kennedy.

  • 1963

    Community Mental Health Centers Act calls for deinstitutionalization and increased community services. (1963)

  • 1966

    Mental Health America successfully advocated for inclusion of mandated mental heath services in Medicare.

  • 1969

    Mental Health America advocated for renewal of the CMHC Act and for increased appropriations.

  • 1971

    Mental Health America produced and distributed the film Only Human, which aired on more than 150 television stations, to improve public understanding of mental illness and public acceptance of persons with mental illnesse.

  • 1972

    President Nixon impounded funds appropriated for the National Institute of Mental Health.  Mental Health America was instrumental in reversing the decision.

  • 1973

    Acting on a lawsuit in which Mental Health America participated, a federal judge ordered the release of $52 million in impounded funds voted by Congress for community mental health centers.

  • 1974

    The U.S. Civil Service Commission acceded to Mental Health America’s demand that a “Have you ever been mentally Ill?” question be removed from federal government employment forms.

  • 1977

    President Carter established the President’s Commission on Mental Health, the first comprehensive survey of mental healthcare since the 1950s.  Many Mental Health America volunteers were named to the Commission and its task forces.

  • 1981

    1980's and Depression (NARSAD), a foundation formed with the purpose of raising private sector funds to support research on mental illnesses.

  • 1982

    Mental Health America sponsored the National Commission on the Insanity Defense public hearings, co-chaired by former Sen. Birch Bayh and Mental Health America President-Elect Thomas H. Brinkley.

  • 1983

    EEOC chief Patricia Roberts Harris chaired Mental Health America’s National Commission on Unemployment and Mental Health.

  • 1985

    Mental Health America’s public policy initiative resulted in the passage of the Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act by Congress.

  • 1987

    Mental Health America and the Families for the Homeless launched the development of a major nationwide photographic exhibit depicting the human side of “Homeless in America.”

  • 1987

    Mental Health America organized the National Action Commission on the Mental Health of Rural Americans to study service and policy issues regarding the delivery of mental health services to citizens living in rural areas whose lives have been impacted by major social and economic change.

  • 1989

    Mental Health America released its Report of the Invisible Children Project, which revealed the gross neglect and over-institutionalization of children with emotional disorders in the U.S.

  • 1990

    Mental Health America and the American Red Cross jointly published and distributed more than 250,000 copies of When the Yellow Ribbons Come Down, a guidebook to help Operation Desert Storm veterans and their families cope with readjusting to life at home.

  • 1990

    Mental Health America 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.

  • 1993

    Mental Health America launched its National Public Education Campaign on Clinical Depression with an unprecedented media launch reaching millions of Americans through public service announcements and advertising.

  • 1994

    Mental Health America, in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Institute of Mental Health, organized the first comprehensive conference on The State of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Black America.

  • 1996

    Mental Health America helped secure passage of the “Mental Health Parity Act,” the first federal legislation to bring more equity to health insurance coverage of mental health care.

  • 1998

    Mental Health America was instrumental in President Clinton’s decision to end discrimination in mental health insurance coverage for 9 million federal workers and their families by enacting mental health insurance parity for federal workers.

  • 1998

    Mental Health America released a nationwide study that revealed the top reasons individuals refused to seek help for anxiety disorders, the most common mental illnesses, which included shame, fear, and embarrassment.

  • 2002

    Mental Health America released the first-ever survey of children that reported that 78 percent of teens who were gay or thought to be gay were teased or bullied in their schools and communities.

  • 2003

    Mental Health America released the results of a survey on national awareness of bipolar disorder, which showed that two-thirds of Americans hold limited, if any, knowledge of this common illness.

  • 2005

    Mental Health America’s advocacy resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling declaring the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, thereby removing 73 individuals from death row.

  • 2008

    Mental Health America, along with a coalition of mental health agencies and advocates, succeeded in getting the Mental Health Parity Act signed into law.

  • 2014

     

    Mental Health America launches Before Stage 4 (#B4Stage4), a campaign focused on prevention; early identification and intervention; integrated treatment, services, and supports, with recovery as a goal. This philosophy promotes treating mental health concerns like all health concerns, which need to be addressed before reaching a crisis stage. 

    Mental Health America introduces a free, confidential, and anonymous online screening program for individuals to help determine if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. After completing a screening, individuals receive immediate results, along with education and resources.

  • 2015

    Mental Health America releases the first annual State of Mental Health in America report, establishing MHA’s goal of publishing a yearly snapshot of the prevalence of mental health conditions and a baseline for future legislation on mental health parity. 

    Mental Health America, with support from the Faas Foundation, launches the Work Health Survey, a two-year research project on workplace mental health.

  • 2016

    Mental Health America advocates for the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, legislation that prioritizes hospitalization and court-ordered treatment, focusing on integrating mental health into primary care and addressing mental health needs across all stages of life and at all levels of severity. Bipartisan support of these changes led to the passage of its provisions as part of the 21st Century Cures Act.

  • 2017

    Mental Health America creates the National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS) certification, the first national-level advanced peer support specialist certification. This credential seeks to create a uniform, high standard across the U.S. and expand peer support into working with commercial health insurance, private health systems, and practitioners.

  • 2018

     

    Mental Health America publishes the first-ever Workplace Wellness Report: Mind the Workplace, an analysis of over 17,000 employee surveys across 19 industries in the United States. 

    The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act of 2018 – significant legislation in response to the opioid epidemic – is passed. It includes policies on addressing trauma, financing peer support specialists, and protecting access to effective care which were shaped and advocated for by Mental Health America. 

    Mental Health America releases its first Beyond Awareness: Student-led Innovation in Campus Mental Health report. Based on the work of students on MHA’s 2017 Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council, this report highlights student perspectives and programmatic solutions to supporting student mental health.

    Mental Health America launches Screening to Supports (S2S), an interactive online space for individuals to find tools they can use after screening to increase their mental wellness. It provides customized results, anticipating what each help-seeking individual will want and need after receiving their screening results. 

    Over 4,000,000 mental health screens have been completed at MHAscreening.org. 

  • 2019

     

    Mental Health America releases LGBTQ+ Mental Health: Insights from MHA Screening, a report that explores data from nearly 300,000 screens completed by LGBTQ+ individuals. It highlights the specific challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, especially youth, and provides specific policy and programmatic recommendations to ensure necessary, appropriate, and timely support. 

    Mental Health America introduces the Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health, an accreditation that recognizes employers who demonstrably value a mentally healthy company culture.