If 100 years ago we had listened to Clifford Beers, founder of Mental Health America, there would be almost no untreated serious mental illness (SMI) today.

Clifford Beers
Source: Clifford Beers

Jared Loughner wouldn’t have shot and severely injured U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. James Holmes wouldn’t have walked into an Aurora movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 70. Adam Lanza wouldn’t have murdered 20 first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Beers was a successful businessman who had graduated from Yale University. At age 24, following frequent bouts of depression, he tried to kill himself by jumping from his bedroom window. Between 1900 and 1903, as his illness developed into manic depression, Beers was hospitalized at Stamford Hall, Hartford Retreat, and Connecticut State Hospital. Although some staff at these facilities treated Beers kindly, others abused him brutally.  

Beers’ experience spurred him to campaign for reform. He wanted to stop abuse in institutions. But Beers never wanted to get rid of institutions. In fact, when Beers suffered a relapse in 1904, he willingly returned to the Hartford Retreat.

Today, most psychiatric asylums have been closed. Although medications and treatments have improved since Beers’ day, hundreds of thousands of people with SMI fail to receive the treatment they need. They roam our streets and fill our prisons where they often become victims of abuse. Some need periodic hospital care. A small proportion will never recover. Others suffering from hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments do not even realize they are sick.

Our mental health system is in shambles. But it doesn’t have to be this way. H.R. 2646 “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015,” was introduced in Congress last June. I’ve written about what this important bill would do to improve life for people with serious mental illness in a recent blog and I encourage you to call your congressmen and ask them to support H.R. 2646.

It’s time to demand that our federal legislators pay attention to the needs of citizens with SMI. For the sake of Clifford Beers and people like him who suffer SMI today, we must not wait another hundred years for change.

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