How Mental Health America Changes the Way Mental Illness Is Treated in the US


In 1908, Yale graduate Clifford Beers published a book detailing his treatment while institutionalized for three years because of mental illnesses. His experiences in both private and public institutions and his observations of the mistreatment of others caused a stir throughout America. People’s eyes were opened to the degradation untold numbers of patients faced every day.

Determined to reform mental health treatment, Beers launched the National Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1909. Now, over 100 years later, Beers’ work continues in the form of Mental Health America (MHA), the nation’s largest and oldest community-based nonprofit devoted to helping people with mental illnesses and campaigning for reform in mental health treatment.

Paul Gionfriddo is president and CEO of MHA, which is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. Gionfriddo says that MHA has grown from small beginnings into a powerful national movement. MHA’s roots are the precursors to every other major national health program in the country, including the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) and the National Council of Behavioral Health. Operating in 41 states, MHA has 200 affiliates in America, over 6,000 employees and a budget of $300 million.

“In some respects, a lot of what we fight for today hasn’t really changed in the past 100 years,” Gionfriddo said. From the beginning and through today, MHA fights for services for children; advocates moving the mentally ill out of poor homes and prisons and into mental health facilities; and battles for doctors, not police, to lead the mental health system. The fight is to give every person hope of recovery.

“[The mission] really talked about impressing on people the importance of recovery, that recovery was not only possible, but would become likely if we did earlier intervention and more appropriate community-based services of support,” Gionfriddo said. “In all of those senses, we haven’t changed a lot.”

Thanks to MHA’s hard work, since 1949, May has been designated as Mental Health Month. However, the organization has had to work hard to move the conversation and change the branding about what mental illnesses actually are.

“Up until a few years ago, people just thought of it as a public safety issue — it’s only about people in crisis and what we do when people are a danger to themselves or others,” Gionfriddo said. “We’re really proud of the fact that we’re changing that conversation and meeting people upstream to thinking about this as a health issue and thinking about mental health as a part of overall health and wellness and really getting the attention of policymakers and others in what they can do in the area of prevention, early identification and early intervention.”

In 1953, the chains and shackles once used to bond people in state mental institutions were melted down to form MHA’s Mental Health Bell, the organization’s symbol.

“It is a symbol of hope, of optimism, of opportunity because it is the reformation of those chains and shackles that held people, bound in institutions and state hospitals back in the early 20th century,” Gionfriddo said.

Among the host of things MHA does — education, advocacy, screening, reports — agency officials still are moving forward to find new, innovative ways of helping people with mental illnesses. One of the new initiatives is the national peer support program. Much as people with cancer often have someone who’s gone through treatment walk alongside them through the process, the peer with a history of mental illness would help a person just diagnosed along the recovery path. The peer then would be eligible for expense reimbursement through insurance.

Gionfriddo says MHA still is working on convincing insurers to climb on board, but he is optimistic they will see the benefit.

“We’re working with insurance companies as part of the oversight team to make sure we can demonstrate that we’re actually going to reduce their costs down the road,” Gionfriddo said. “That’s what they’re looking at.”

Meanwhile, on May 10, 2016, Walgreen’s announced a partnership with MHA to use the nonprofit’s already popular online mental health screening tool on the pharmacy’s website, which 3 million people visit each day. The screening tool tests for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD and other mental illnesses. MHA can facilitate follow-up treatment through its own providers and local affiliates across the country.

Primarily, MHA is fighting to diagnose and treat mental illnesses before they rise to a level of crisis, as seen in their #Be4Stage4 campaign, Gionfriddo says.

“Our goal is prevention for all, early identification for those at risk, integration of health [and] behavioral health for those who need them, and recovery,” Gionfriddo said. “As we move toward implementation of those in the next few years, I think that is what will define our success.”


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