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Recalling JFK’s role in treating mental illness

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

On Oct. 31, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law, which provided federal funds to help support community mental health centers devoted to the treatment of mental illness. 

The 50th anniversary of the signing of the act is a time to celebrate and remember the bold, new approach made possible by this legislation.

Kennedy’s vision restored value to the individual as a productive member of society who happened to be suffering from an illness. It’s a vision we still strive to fully realize today: a community focused on prevention, treatment, education, and recovery.

Because of this vision, more people with mental illnesses today get treated than at any other time in history, mostly in community settings.

While there have been great advancements since 1963, the problems are not all solved, and the battles are not all won.

We still have inadequate levels of resources, particularly financial support, to treat all who need it.

Also, despite solid medical evidence that mental illness is a disease of the brain, like any other disease, those struggling with a mental illness are still subjected to the old stereotypes and ostracized because of the persistent stigma. This can cause individuals to avoid seeking the care they need.

One way those stereotypes are perpetuated is the way the national news media, in particular, report on mass shootings in schools and other settings. They often rush to explain the cause of those acts as mental illness, when the truth is quite the opposite: Individuals with mental health issues are generally the victims of crime, not the purveyors.

The media’s theorizing about the psychiatric diagnoses of perpetrators demonizes mental illness and discourages others from seeking treatment at the very community mental health centers the 1963 law helped to create.

Note to readers: Patrick Phelan is the president/CEO of Sinnissippi Centers Inc.

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