Fifty Years Ago, John F. Kennedy Called on Congress to Improve Mental Health

Feb 7, 2013

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On Feb. 5, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a special message to Congress about the state of mental health in America. Focusing on accurate and prompt diagnoses, adequate treatment, education and recovery, Kennedy’s letter helped lead to a significant change in the way Americans approach mental health care.

In the past 50 years, America has made great strides in helping individuals living with mental illness. Effective forms of therapy and medication are being utilized and the lives of many have been considerably improved.

Yet the mental health crisis in America continues to grow. Veterans are dealing with the consequences of serving in the military. Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and other mental illnesses continue to devastate soldiers long after they return from war. A report released on Feb. 1, by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that 22 veterans die every day by suicide every day; roughly one veteran every 65 minutes. Just two weeks earlier, the Army announced that suicides hit a record in 2012 and accounted for more deaths of active-duty troops than combat.

The number of veterans dying by suicide as a percentage of the total number of suicides in America has decreased. Unfortunately this is because of the steadily increasing rate of suicides in the general population. As noted in the New York Times, between 1999 and 2010, the most recent year available, Veteran suicides increased 10 percent, but in the general population suicides rose from 80 a day to an estimated 105, an increase of 31 percent. Inadequate investment in mental health resources is having a profound negative impact on the country as a whole.

Recent events like the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. have brought the topic of mental health into the public eye. As Richard Friedman, M.D. wrote in the New York Times, just 4 percent of violent crimes can be attributed to people with mental illness.

Violence aside, there is growing awareness of the need to fix the mental health system. In his special message, John F. Kennedy highlighted the importance of mental health centers and community care. Unfortunately, because of budget cuts in many states, these resources have been eliminated. “Many community mental health programs have disappeared and more than 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds have been eliminated. For too many, even basic mental health care is illusory. People can’t get help until they go into crisis,” wrote Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for NAMI, in op-ed for USA Today.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act, which included provisions for covering mental health, is a start. Approximately 10 million children and adults living with mental illness will gain deserved coverage through the new law.

In the days following the shooting in Newtown, Vice President Biden created a task force, in which NAMI participated, to continue to develop plans for improving mental health resources and support in the U.S. On Jan. 16, President Obama took those suggestions into account when he delivered his plan to reduce gun violence.

Following the lead of John F. Kennedy, President Obama will try to build on his legacy to improve access to mental health care and address those issues. Now is the time to change the future of mental health in America.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).