Mental Health America and National Mental Health Reform

Mental Health America, of which Mental Health America of Greenville County is an affiliate, is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. With 233 affiliates nationwide, Mental Health America works to improve the mental health of all Americans, especially the 54 million individuals with mental disorders, through advocacy, education, research and service.

Mental Health America was established in 1909 by former psychiatric patient 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.

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.

The Mental Health America Bell

During the early days of mental health treatment, asylums often restrained people who had mental illnesses with iron chains and shackles around their ankles and wrists. With better understanding and treatments, this cruel practice eventually stopped.

In the early 1950s, Mental Health America issued a call to asylums across the country for their discarded chains and shackles. On April 13, 1956, at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Md., Mental Health America melted down these inhumane bindings and recast them into a sign of hope: the Mental Health Bell.

Now the symbol of Mental Health America, the 300-pound Bell serves as a powerful reminder that the invisible chains of misunderstanding and discrimination continue to bind people with mental illnesses. Today, the Mental Health Bell rings out hope for improving mental health and achieving victory over mental illnesses.

Over the years, national mental health leaders and other prominent individuals have rung the Bell to mark the continued progress in the fight for victory over mental illnesses.

Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness. — Inscription on Mental Health Bell


Our History by Decade

LOOKING BACK: The National History of Mental Health America

The history of Mental Health America (formerly Mental Health Association) 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 the mentally ill;
  • to improve services for people with mental illness ; and
  • to work for the prevention of mental illnesses and the promotion of mental health.

From that momentous day, Mental Health America built a legacy of change and progress.  The following are selected highlights from Mental Health America's nine decades of service.  

1900s

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. (1908)

1910s

Mental Health America facilitated the creation of more than 100 child guidance clinics in the United States aimed at prevention, early intervention and treatment. (1910)

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. (1917)

1920s

Mental Health America produced a set of model commitment laws, which were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states. (1920)

1930s

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. (1930)

1940s

The "National Mental Health Act," which created the National Institute of Mental Health, passed as a result of Mental Health America's advocacy. (1946)

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.  (1949)

1950s

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. (1953)

Mental Health America joined and supported the Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Health, which was created and funded by Congress. (1955)

1960s

Mental Health America convened the National Leadership Conference on Action for Mental Health, in which 100 national voluntary organizations participated.  (1962)

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)

Mental Health America successfully advocated for inclusion of mandated mental heath services in Medicare. (1966)

Mental Health America advocated for renewal of the CMHC Act and for increased appropriations.  (1969)

1970s

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 illnesses. (1971)

President Nixon impounded funds appropriated for the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Health America was instrumental in reversing the decision. (1972)

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.  (1973)

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.  (1974)

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. (1977)

1980s

Mental Health America helped to form the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), a foundation formed with the purpose of raising private sector funds to support research on mental illnesses. (1981)

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. (1982)

EEOC chief Patricia Roberts Harris chaired Mental Health America's National Commission on Unemployment and Mental Health. (1983)

Mental Health America's public policy initiative resulted in the passage of the Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act by Congress. (1985)

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. (1987)

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.  (1989)

1990s

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.  (1990)

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.  (1993)

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. (1994)

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. (1996)

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.  (1998)

2000s

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.  (2002)

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.  (2003)

Mental Health Americaís advocacy resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling declaring the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, thereby removing 73 individuals from death row.  (2005)

Mental Health America, along with a coalition of mental health agencies and advocates, succeeded in getting the Mental Health Parity Act signed into law.  (2008)

To learn more, watch our video.

National Mental Health America Services

Public education

MHA reaches out to people with information about identifying, treating and preventing mental and emotional disorders. By fostering an informed publice, MHA seeks to raise awareness, decrease stigma and encourage those who need treatment to seek it. MHA works towards this goal through media placements, national public education campaigns, high-profile conferences and a website available to the general public.

MHA supports its affiliates with timely information following national media coverage of events involving mental health issues. An example is the fact sheets distributed immediately following the September 11, 2001 attack, including "Helping Children Handle Disaster"-"Related Anxiety and Tips for Adults", which our affiliate then faxed to other community agencies and to elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the upstate region.

MHA has also developed a Coping with Disaster series to assist anyone with coping during crisis and loss. The series includes coping with the stress of natural disasters, coping with tragedy, coping with the stress of ongoing military operations, returning home from war (tips for the troops), coping with war, and coping with terrorism. These materials can be accessed through the MHA website which is updated on a regular basis, or can be requested from the MHAGC office.

Information and Referral

NMHA Mental Health Information Center responds to over 25,000 requests annually with information on over 200 mental health topics, free of charge. The Center is available toll-free 24 hours a day. The MHIC consistently has been recognized as an invaluable mental health information resource.

Prevention

MHA leads the national movement for the prevention of mental and emotional disabilities. MHA's Office of Prevention helps community agencies locate and implement proven programs that address issues like conflict resolution, parenting skills and violence prevention.

Advocacy

NMHA advocates for fair and equitable treatment for persons suffering from mental illnesses and increases awareness among legislators regarding the necessity of mental health services. NMHA promotes an agenda that includes access to appropriate, affordable care; parity in health care coverage between mental illnesses and physical ailments; and federal support of research and community programs. 

Mental Health America of South Carolina

MHASC and its 23 affiliates work in all areas of mental health, including public education, advocacy, direct service, and state and federal mental health policy areas. MHASC sponsors an annual conference on mental health issues, maintains a resource library and web page and coordinates statewide health fairs and screenings. MHASC helps navigate the state mental health system for clients and lobbies for sound mental health practices and funding in the SC General Assembly. 

MHASC provides a statewide presence with governmental agencies, develops policies which guide activities across the state and follows legislation which will improve and expand mental health care in South Carolina. MHASC board members and staff sit on more than a dozen policy-crafting boards to influence the delivery of mental health treatment, promote a legislative agenda, serve as "watchdogs" of the quality of care in state and private facilities and work to educate the media and public about mental health treatment.

MHAGC is an affiliate of MHASC, which in turn is affiliated with the National Mental Health Association. We pay dues to MHASC to help support its programming, which benefits all the citizens of South Carolina, including Greenville County.

MHASC and its affiliates visited state hospital facilities during the 1950s and advocated for radial changes in the treatment of individuals with mental illnesses. MHASC also advocated for the creation of community mental health centers throughout the state in the 1960s. During the past 20 years MHASC affiliates have worked to develop supportive housing for individuals disabled with mental illnesses, and several affiliates have started representative payee programs for individuals who need assistance with money management. Joy Jay, director of MHASC, believes that these two programs provide supports for these individuals and have a significant impact in reducing the hospitalization rates of these individuals.

Mental Health America of Greenville County

Mental Health America of Greenville County (MHAGC) is the local chapter of a nationwide, voluntary membership organization dedicated to working for America's mental health and victory over mental illness. MHAGC is affiliated with Mental Health America in South Carolina (MHASC) and Mental Health America (MHA national organization). MHASC was chartered in 1954, and the affiliate in Greenville was founded in 1955. MHAGC is the only broad-based organization in Greenville County dedicated to addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness.  It was formerly named Mental Health Association of Greenville County.

An ongoing focus of MHAGC has been services for clients of the mental health centers in Greenville County beginning with a Christmas gift collection project dating back to the mid 1950s, a socialization group for individuals discharged from the SC State Hospital in the 1970s, weekly programs at a local large community care home in the 1980s and early 1990s, the development and ownership of housing units in the 1990s, and adding the Representative Payee program in 1994.

MHAGC has a unique expertise regarding suicide prevention, intervention, and after-care in our Greenville community through our Crisis Intervention Services (CIS) program, including our Survivors of Suicide support group and closed grief groups. We have been recognized through the certification by the American Association of Suicidology. The CRISISline part of the CIS program was developed in June, 1969. On March 19, 1990, MHAGC assumed management. Over these past 21 years, CRISISline has provided 24/7 service without interruption. This equates to over 183,960 service hours of handling more than 302,500 calls. The line has expanded over the years to cover five counties and handle more than 11,000 calls annually.

After research determined that teens are more likely to talk to their peers, TEENline was opened in 1995. Trained teens complete over 40 hours of training to take TEENline calls and 20 hours of mentoring. In the last several years we had noticed a decline in TEENline calls due to the texting age. In 2011 MHAGC responded by opening a teen crisis chat on the TEENlineSC.org website.  Youth are able to chat online with TEENline workers and we anticipate 2013 to bring teen texting.

When MHAGC assumed the management of CRISISline in 1990 it also encompassed Survivors of Suicide (SOS). A survivor of suicide is a family member or friend who lost a loved one to suicide. SOS is a support group for these survivors. Survivors of suicide represent the largest mental health casualties related to suicide (Edwin Shneidman, PhD, AAS Founding President). There are over 31,000 suicides annually in the USA; and it is estimated that there are at least six survivors for every suicide. There is stigma attached to suicide. Shame and embarrassment may prevent the survivor from reaching out for help. Family members and friends of the survivor may not know how to provide assistance. Each survivor is six times more likely to die by suicide leaving loved ones behind to wonder why, try to cope, and survive.

MHAGC through its SOS program provides educational material to survivors and operates an open monthly meeting for survivors. In 2005 SOS began to offer closed eight-week grief groups for adults, teens and children. In 2007 MHAGC survivors received training from Iris Bolton, survivor and author of "My Son, My Son," to provide home visits for those to tender to attend a support group.

Throughout the over 55 years of service, the backbone of MHAGC remains rooted in mental health education and advocacy. We achieve this through our Mental Health Matters! (MHM) education program. The goal of this program is to promote positive mental health by emphasizing the importance of mental well-being and providing access to tools to better achieve it. Mental health issues affect each of us, and MHAGC focuses on three areas:

  1. Recognize the value of positive mental health.
  2. Identify characteristics of poor and positive mental health.
  3. Respond to stress and anxiety with personal and community resources.
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