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A Brief History of Mental Health in United States, 1773-1982 by Frank Rider, National Federation of Families (05-11)

1773: The first hospital for the mentally ill in the US opened in Williamsburg, Virginia.

1840: There were only eight “asylums for the insane” in the United States. Dorothea Dix crusaded for the establishment or enlargement of 32 mental hospitals, and transfer of those with mental illness from almshouses and jails. First attempt to measure the extent of mental illness and mental retardation in the United States occurred with the U.S. Census of 1840, which included the category “insane and idiotic” (see R.C. Scheerenberger, A History of Mental Retardation, Baltimore: Brookes Publishing, 1983).. 1900: The “mental hygiene” movement began; Clifford Beers, a mental health consumer, who shocked readers with a graphic account of hospital conditions in his famous book, The Mind that Found Itself. Inspection of immigrants at Ellis Island included screening to detect the “mentally disturbed and retarded”. The high incidence of mental disorders among immigrants prompted public recognition of mental illness as a national health problem. 1930: The US Public Health Service (PHS) established the Narcotics Division, later named the Division of Mental Hygiene, bringing together research and treatment programs to combat drug addiction and study of the causes, prevalence, and means of preventing and treating nervous and mental disease. 1944: During World War II, severe shortages of professional mental health personnel and the understanding of the causes, treatment, and prevention of mental illness lagged behind other fields of medical science and public health. Dr.William Menninger, chief of Army neuropsychiatry, called for federal action. A national mental health program was proposed, forming the foundation of the National Mental Health Act of 1946. 1946: President Truman signed the National Mental Health Act, creating for the first time in US history a significant amount of funding for psychiatric education and research and leading to). 1949: Creation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Lithium was discovered to treat and reduce symptoms for people diagnosed with a bipolar disorder (Ann Palmer’s 20th Century History of the Treatment of Mental Illness.) The FDA approved the drug in 1970. 1952: Chlorpromazine (Thorazine), one of the first psychotropic drugs, was discovered, greatly improving the condition of consumers with psychosis and delusion. In many cases, Thorazine alleviated symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, agitation and thought disorders. 1955: Congress authorized the Mental Health Study Act of 1955 and called for “an objective, thorough, nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health.” The act provided the basis for the historic study conducted by the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, Action for Mental Health. 1956: Congress appropriated $12 million for research in the clinical and basic aspects of psychopharmacology and the Psychopharmacology Service Center was established. The number of consumers in mental hospitals began to decline reflecting the introduction of psychopharmacology in the treatment of mental illness. The Health Amendments Act authorized the support of community services for the mentally ill, such as halfway houses, daycare, and aftercare under Title V.

1961: Action for Mental Health was transmitted to Congress. It assessed mental health conditions and resources throughout the United States “to arrive at a national program that would approach adequacy in meeting the individual needs of the mentally ill people of America.”

1963: Community Mental Health Act, Public Law 88-164, a.k.a. the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act, provided federal funding for community mental health centers. Passed as part of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. (President Kennedy had a sympathetic perspective, given his sister Rosemary’s mental retardation and lobotomy in 1941 at age 23), the Community Mental Health Act led to considerable deinstitutionalization, but little more. 1976: Public Law 94-142, Education for All Handicapped Children Act, for the first time established a nationwide right to a free and appropriate public education for all children, regardless of disability status. 1982: Jane Knitzer’s Unclaimed Children described continued nationwide failure to provide services for children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances.

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