JFK’s Vision for Mental Health Care – 50 Years Later

This week people across the country and around the world remember the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, less than forty miles from Fort Worth. Many will think about where they were that fateful day fifty years ago, what they were doing, how they felt when they heard the news. For younger generations, this week will be full of stories – stories of a nation in mourning, stories of a young life cut short, stories of a visionary leader who worked for peace and prosperity. On this historic anniversary, The Women’s Center remembers with gratitude President Kennedy’s efforts to establish a new, more inclusive and compassionate mental health care system in America.

Kennedy speaking on mental healthThe Community Mental Health Act of 1963

“But we cannot afford to postpone any longer a reversal in our approach to mental affliction. For too long the shabby treatment of the many millions of the mentally disabled in custodial institutions and many millions more now in communities needing help has been justified on grounds of inadequate funds, further studies and future promises. We can procrastinate no more.”

 – President Kennedy in a special message to Congress on February 5, 1963

On October 31, 1963, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act intoKennedy signing legislation law. It would be his last piece of legislation before his untimely death three weeks later. The Community Mental Health Act deinstitutionalized mental health care in America and created a framework for community-based services. Specifically, the law established comprehensive community mental health centers. These centers combined the mental health services already available in many communities into one cohesive community-based agency to help those suffering from mental illness. 

The law wasn’t perfect – far from it. Only half of the community mental health care centers were ever built, and the Community Mental Health Act created a new mental health care system that has since been severely underfunded at all levels of government.

But the law did lay out a vision of mental health care as inclusive, compassionate, and community-based, and since this historic legislation, America’s approach to caring for those suffering from mental illness has changed dramatically. Today mental health care in this country focuses on compassionate community-based services that include, rather than exclude, those suffering from mental illness in society. Every day and with every client, President Kennedy’s vision for mental health care in America guides The Women’s Center mental health professionals in our work. 

The Next 50 Years…

How can we continue to work toward President Kennedy’s vision for effective community-based mental health care in this country?

We can erase the stigma associated with mental illness. Talk with friends and family about mental illness. Get involved with a local mental health provider like The Women’s Center. Support local, state, and national mental health initiatives.  To learn more about mental health care in Tarrant County, visit the Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County website.

We can advocate for better mental health care in our communities. Write to state and national legislators and let them know that adequately-funded mental health care is important to the health of your community. To learn more about national mental health policy and advocacy efforts and how you can make a difference, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.

Taking small steps like these can help ensure that President Kennedy’s vision for a compassionate and inclusive mental health care system will one day be a reality for every American suffering from mental illness. 

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