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History of the Mental Health Movement via Time Travel


This is not to be a history lesson but a means to show how MHAHC came into being, why it evolved, when it evolved and where it all happened. When fully understanding this, the path to the future is often more clear.

As Warren Bennis once quoted: Like oarsmen, we generally move forward while looking backward, but not until we truly see the past - truly understand it - can we truly move forward and upward.

This trip down the time line begins with the earliest colonial settlements. So take a comfortable seat in the time machine, clear your mind of present 'things' and 'see' where the Mental Health Movement has been. Buckle your seat belts and do not place your hands or arms out side of the vehicle. Our first stop will be in the mid 1600s.

As secular science beliefs began replacing Christian thoughts in society, mental illness was seen as a direct results of individual actions. In colonial society, the Poor Laws were enforced and the family cared for their own sick and to support their own mentally ill relations. If the people with mental illness caused no disruption in society, they were allowed to freely roam. Some even held important offices and responsible jobs. Only if no family, did the community accept responsibility. If they were poor, they were boarded in private homes or almshouses usually at public expense. In 1662, Boston established the first almshouse using private funds. (Grob, Gerald N, Mental Institutions in America, The Free Press, NY., 1973. pg 13)

Mental illness was greatly misunderstood, for example Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan minister in the late 1600’s, wrote about what could be interpreting madness as demoniac possession and dealing in witchcraft. It wasn't until thirty years later, he wrote that madness may be more a physical cause.

During the Age of Enlightenment (1740-60), Benjamin Rush, a doctor, believed that all diseases, including madness, was a body imbalance that needed to have blood letting occur. "Rush summed up his diagnoses and treatments for insanity in Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (Philadelphia, 1812,) the first major American Medical treatise on mental illness" according to authors Gamwell and Tomes.

In 1751, the first hospital in the colonies was Pennsylvania Hospital. It was established to "maintain social order posed by violent lunatics" and backed by Benjamin Franklin and other prominent leaders and supported by the government. (Gamwell, Lynn & Tomes, Nancy, Madness and the Asylum in Early America, Cornell University Press, 1995, pg 55)

Unlike New England who favored private charities, Virginia favored the creation of public agencies. As early as the 1770's, care for the insane was entrusted to an asylum that operated under the direct authority of the legislature. (Henning, The Statutes at Large, … 1821, Vol. IX, pp. 167-169)

As hospitals, prisons, and asylums filled, the need for more humane and moral control grew. The earliest American asylums to show this humane treatment were the private, nonprofit institutions such as Friends Asylum and the Connecticut Retreat for the Insane (Hartford Retreat). Even with these reforms in the early 1800's, reports from the late 1850's were proving that the reforms weren't lasting. This became evident in several areas - newspaper articles, and court reports. Major reform movements were conducted by two people, Dix and Beers. (Gamwell, Lynn & Tomes, Nancy, Madness and the Asylum in Early America, Cornell University Press, 1995, pgs 15-20)

These two outstanding persons spent all of their later lives to bring the detestable conditions, that persons with mental illness were exposed to, to the attention of society. It was at the middle of the 19th century that find, Dorothea Dix and later around 1908, Clifford Beers fighting for better treatment of the insane.

Dorothea Dix was the first to make the pubic aware of the abominable living conditions of the mentally ill when she did a one-person campaign across the country in the mid 1800's. Picture this tiny petite gentle woman visiting crude prisons, alyssums, and private homes where the insane were kept. Traveling conditions alone would have stopped most strong men, yet she covered the States east of the Mississippi and reported back to that State's legislation and to the Capitol itself. She was the first to document the conditions and made it possible to get the government involved. Yet so many continued to 'fall through the cracks' so as time when on, many nonprofits were organized to handle the 'grass root' problems of those not meeting the criteria of the government. (Elgin, Kathleen, The Unitarians, "Angel of Mercy," David McKay Co., Inc., 1971, pgs 19-71)

Fortunately our time machine is more comfortable than Miss Dix's traveling coaches were. Our next stop is to visit Mr. Clifford Beers, who is the father of the Mental Health Movement.

Clifford Beers, is considered the founder for the National Mental Health Association which was originally named the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. This was the first nation-wide scale organization for mental health of its kind and started from a grass root style group called the Connecticut Society in 1908. Mr. Beers had direct experience in coping with mental illness and received extreme ill treatment from a privately owned asylum run by profit, then a private, non-profit making institution, and finally a state hospital in the early 1900's. Three years of torturing experience was written into a novel to expose the conditions that people with mental illness had to contend with. It not only contained his experiences but suggested ways to change the recovery program and methods of prevention. He strongly felt mental illness was not only curable but preventable. His book, A Mind that Found Itself, laid the ground work for a national society

The 1908 mental hygiene movement gained not only support from the medical field but from society as a whole. When enough funds were received in 1915, tours of the country's mental health facilities were planned and continued to take place throughout the country for the next forty years, funded mainly from the Rockefeller Foundation. During World War I, both mental and physical health studies and care increased when the government created a division of neurology and psychiatry within the Surgeon General's office. This was organized by Beers' National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH).

In 1915, there were five 'state hospitals for the insane' in Indiana, also a school for the feebleminded and a village for the epileptic. ('The Indiana Story, The History of the Mental Health Association in Indiana, MHAHC Historical files, pg 1)

By 1916, in Indiana, the governor formed a committee at the request of the Indiana Board of State Charities, called a "Conference on Mental Defectives" in Indianapolis. This conference was the results of a survey showing major deficiencies in the care and treatment of the mental 'defective' in several Indiana counties. Clifford Beers was present at this conference. Indiana became the seventh state society following Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Sadly significant change would not occur until after World War II. ('The MHA - History, Purpose, and Structure,' The History of the Mental Health Movement, MHAHC historical files, pgs 3-4)

It was in 1917 under the sponsorship of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene that a psychiatric study of prisoners was started; unfortunately, the funding was so limited that it became almost nonexistent after 1940's. Although some still exist to this day, the testing and treating of prisoners are very limited and usually court ordered.

The pioneer Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene encouraged other groups to organize that by 1918, 17 state societies for mental hygiene was established, by 1936, more than fifty was started so that today there is almost one in every county in every state of the country. The same growth occurred on the international level as well.

In 1928, Mr. Beers, and his associates established the American Foundation for Mental Hygiene as a financing tool. (Deutsch, Albert, The Mentally Ill in America, Columbia University Press, 1949, pgs. 308-329). Clifford Beers (his experiences), Adolf Meyer (his psychobiological school), Erich Lindemann (his 'human relations service and training of non-specialists), and Harold Caplan (his mental health consultation and crisis intervention) were considered the leaders in preventive psychiatry. Their information assisted the legislation that eventually lead to establishment of community mental health centers in the United States in the early 1960s.

In 1948, the Indiana Society was reorganized as the Indiana Mental Hygiene Society but was in name only.

In 1949, the first county chapter was organized in Marion County followed by the second chapter in St. Joseph County. Before 1949 was over, the following counties were added: Allen, Delaware, Wayne, Knox, Tippecanoe and Grant.

The maturation of the Indiana Society would parallel similar developments on the national front. The National Association for Mental Health came into existence in 1950 with the merger of three organizations: The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, The National Mental Health Foundation, and the Psychiatric Foundation.

Another challenge came in the early 1950's, this time from the leaders of the Mental Health Association. These leaders were intimately familiar with the deplorable and inhumane conditions in the locked state mental hospitals because many had worked in these hospitals as conscientious objectors in World War II.

Our time machine takes us back to Indiana during the Christmas season of 1951.

The custom of buying a gift for a patient in a mental hospital began with the Marion County chapter in 1951. With many families it is still a custom, as you are buying gifts for the family, you automatically buy one for a mental health patient. ('The Indiana Story, The History of the Mental Health Association in Indiana, MHAHC Historical files, pg iix )

The Mental Health bell that weighs 300 pounds and was cast in 1953 can be viewed at Alexandria, VA in the lobby of the National Headquarters of the Mental Health Association. As with the Liberty Bell, hundreds and thousands of lives have paid for the creation of this bell. This 300 pound bell was 'cast from the shackles, chains, and restrains of persons with mental illness.' The National MHA collected these metal items from the hundreds of mentally ill patients across the country. The lobby of their headquarters in 1952 looked like a 'chamber of horrors.' Since the bell has been made, it now rings out in hope whenever a new program, a new piece of legislation, or a new discovery has been made to help the mentally ill. The inscription on the bell reads, "Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness." (Mental Health Association in Hendricks County (MHAHC) flyer, The Story of the Mental Health Bell, "This Bell Shall Ring Out Hope.")

The most enthusiastic ringing of the bell was at Fenway Park in Boston at the opening of the 1955 Mental Health Week. The ringer on that occasion was Jimmy Piersoll, the Red Sox outfielder who had just recovered from two years of mental illness and was playing Major League Baseball. Probably its most distinguished performance took place at the White House on April 30, 1958, when Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower rang it to signal the opening of that year's Mental Health Week. For the first international observance of Mental Health Month, the bell crossed the border of Canada and made an appearance in Montreal at Expo '67 and rang on May 1 at a ceremony on the Expo grounds. Clifford Beers' 'Mental Health Movement' was responsible for the measure of progress and; more importantly, to proclaim to persons with mental illness that they have hope for recovery. ('FYI' MHA in Greensboro, Vol II, 1993 pg. 1,4)

In Hendricks County, MHAHC's records show receipts going back to 1961. It is assumed the chapter was charted then but possibly as early as 1957, but there was no physical evidence of that. Back then there were seven in attendance and the meeting was held in a private home. Currently, there are 16 board members, five staff, and over a hundred individual volunteers and numerous groups.

Oct 31, 1963, only three weeks before his assassination, Pres. Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 (PL88-164). Community mental health care is one of the few social programs of the 1960's that survived and grew. Set by a 1961 report to Congress, that 'one, fully-staffed, full-time mental health clinic be available to each 50,000 of population.' Locally, mental health care was organized as a two-county service for Hendricks and Putnam counties and named the Cummins Mental Health Center in 1974. (Hendricks County Flyer, 11/29/88, pg 4)

In 1966, volunteers wore uniforms of the Mental Health Association and they were trained and assigned to hospitals by the Association. There were 2,548 volunteers called Gold Ladies, Gold Men, and Gold Teens giving 98,000 hours during 1966 for the Marion County chapter. ('The Indiana Story, The History of the Mental Health Association in Indiana, MHAHC Historical files, pg x )

Starting in the 1970's, decentralization caused community-based psychiatric services to grow.

Trend to privatize the health care field started in the 1980's.

With the closing of Central State Hospital of Indianapolis, many patients were moved back into their original communities

In 1990's, Lilly's Prozac advertisements did more positive advancement for mental health than anything else in recent history except perhaps the Special Olympic. Watching the children participate in the activities and seeing the advertisements show that mental illness can be treated and that it is a physical problem and the patients can be useful positive citizens in their neighborhoods.

Our time traveling is now over and hoping you had an interesting and enjoyable learning experience about the Mental Health Movement that each of you present here are involved in. If you will unbuckle your seatbelt and step carefully this way…

Published with permission of the Author:  SKH - 10/98

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