Clifford Beers would not be a man of business and commerce that, as a turn of the century Yale graduate, he once imagined himself. Instead he would become a crusader for the muted patients shut away in public and private institutions with names like Hospital for the Insane, Asylum for Feeble-Minded, Village for Epileptics, The School for Idiots and Feeble-Minded Youth, the State Lunatic Asylum, The Insane Pavilion; names that make us cringe today.
Through the publication of his book, A Mind that Found Itself, An Autobiography, Beers found support for what would become his life’s work. He would speak for the patients that no one would listen to, the invisible ones, shut away from polite society, because he used to be one of them. Even after his release from the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane, in his heart, he would always be one of them.
Beers was not the first to try to reform the nation’s treatment of the mentally ill. Dorothea Dix roused state governments 40 years earlier to begin building separate institutions for the mentally ill. In the years between, other crusaders had also “gone public” exposing conditions at the hospitals in newspapers and magazines but had done so in such a sensational fashion that real change never resulted.
Doctors and hospital administrators at the time also were faced with the fact that medical science had little to offer; even ‘treatments’ like insulin comas, shock therapy and lobotomies were still 25 years away. It would be another 30 years before the first wave of drug therapy for mental illness would become available, allowing doctors to “unbolt the doors” and let patients move more freely within the hospital.
With his Yale pedigree, Beers had access to many high level people and organizations, but his Ivy League stature gave everyone the political and social cover often needed to get involved in a cause that might otherwise be brushed aside or deemed undignified.
His courage was in holding himself out, and speaking frankly as a person who had a serious mental illness. He didn’t try to sugar coat it or hide behind euphemisms. And people, lay persons, medical professionals and the average reader, responded to his personal story. Beers showed the country that anyone can have mental illness, and they can recover to become productive members of society.
The kindness of strangers would carry the organization he founded, The National Committee on Mental Hygiene (NCMH), for many years, through the heady 1920s, through the turbulent period in the 30s when depression, world war and Beers’ increasingly erratic behavior and eventual relapse would make fundraising difficult and nearly deplete their coffers many times.
But after 30 years, Beers and the NCMH would have put a human face on mental illness, documented the status of persons living with mental illnesses in America and initiated nationwide reform of state institutions, steered money and scientists toward research on mental illness and literally changed the focus and locus of treatment to early intervention in a community setting.
This groundwork ultimately led to one enormous success: President Kennedy’s call to Congress to improve the quality of mental health care in America. In 1963 Congress passed the Community Mental Health Center Construction Act and reauthorized funding for it for the next 20 years. By 1980 there was a national network of 750 such centers, fostering and encouraging outpatient treatment, not institutionalization.