Celebrating the Leaders Who Have Advanced Mental Healthcare

As the United States marks Presidents Day every February, we celebrate the birthdays of our first president, George Washington, as well as the president who ended slavery in America, Abraham Lincoln. Imagine how Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment affected the mental health of the millions of Black people who had lived without hope as other people’s “property?”

Some see Presidents Day as a time to honor US presidents in general and their accomplishments on our behalf. While some administrations made headway towards benefitting the health and welfare of our citizens, it was not until the middle of the 20th century that mental health was federally acknowledged and addressed.

February is also Black History Month in our country, first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976. So as we take a look at how our presidents have contributed to advances in mental health awareness and treatment, let us also acknowledge Black leaders who have made a difference in how we comprehend and support mental wellness issues.

A new approach to mental health

In February 1963, President John F. Kennedy proposed using federal funding to jumpstart ways to better understand and treat mental illness at the local and state levels. He recommended additional steps, including:

  • Improved care in state institutions
  • Increased mental illness research and prevention
  • Better training for mental health professionals and staff

Influenced by the experiences of his mentally disabled sister, President Kennedy wanted to reverse the “out of sight, out of mind” reaction to people with mental illness, particularly those who were institutionalized. Community mental health centers were at the heart of his plan—an emphasis that remains today—and resulted in the Community Mental Health Act of 1963.

During his administration, President Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, dedicating $800 million dollars to broadening the mental health community. It allows the US Secretary of Health and Human Services to approve grants to public and non-profit private agencies to grow local mental health efforts such as:

  • Mental health service needs assessments
  • Program design
  • Community meddling
  • Financial and professional assistance

From the federal government’s perspective, mental health awareness and action truly got rolling in the 1990s and the 21st century. These are just some of the accomplishments of presidential administrations during that time:

  • President George HW Bush declared the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain,” which included greater attention on brain research. He also banned discrimination against those with mental illness by signing the Americans With Disabilities Act.
  • President Bill Clinton signed the Mental Health Parity Act to address imbalances in mental health coverage, and convened the inaugural White House Conference on Mental Health, initiating efforts to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
  • President George W. Bush signed the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, giving resources to communities to create alternatives to incarcerating youth and adults with mental illness. He also put the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008 into effect, so mental health and substance abuse treatment insurance was equal to that for other medical conditions.
  • President Barack Obama signed the Frank Melville Supportive Housing Investment Act of 2010, increasing federal housing resources for citizens with mental illness and other disabilities. He held a National Conference on Mental Health as well and initiated the National Dialogue on Mental Health.

Leadership emerged from an underserved population

Historically, Black Americans also have made significant contributions to the field of mental health. Born in the late 1800s, Francis Sumner, Ph.D., was the first Black person to receive a doctorate in psychology. Although research agencies refused to fund him because of his race, Sumner was able to publish a few articles—and went on to be one of the founders of Howard University, one of the nation’s top historically Black Colleges and Universities. Ironically, he was interested in understanding the psychological ramifications of racial bias.

A decade later, Inez Beverly Prosser, Ph.D., became the first female black psychologist in the US Her dissertation found that black children from integrated schools had self-esteem and personality issues including:

  • Greater social maladjustment
  • Less satisfactory family relationships
  • Inferior feelings at school
  • Eager to quit school early

Maxie Clarence Maultsby, Jr, MD, developed the rational behavioral therapy psychotherapeutic method. He also made emotional self-help a recognized focus of clinical use and scientific research. Dr. Maultsby’s technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy and counseling was the first extensive and drug-free psychotherapy technique with long-term therapeutic results. Paul Bertau Cornely, MD, DrPH, the first Black president of the American Public Health Association in 1968, began the important work to decrease healthcare disparities among those with continually unmet needs.

The list of Black American innovators in mental health continues to grow:

  • Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D., called out the shortage of available psychological services for minorities. She and her husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Ph.D., were renowned for their “doll tests” to study the psychological impact of segregation among more than 200 Black children.
  • Author, journalist, teacher, and mental health advocate Bebe Moore Campbell directed attention to the mental health needs of the Black community and founded a safe space for its members to discuss them.
  • Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D., is known for her research on criminal justice, implicit bias, and our enforcement education system, leading to law officer anti-bias training.
  • Author Beverly Greene, Ph.D., a pioneer of intersectional psychology, has shown how multiple converging faces of an individual’s identity shape mental health, privilege, and monopoly.
  • Health psychology and public health expert Hope Landrine, Ph.D., showed that existing stereotypes of women, anyone living in poverty, and ethnic and racial minorities were influencing psychiatric diagnoses—and extending social inequities.

Mental wellness advocacy can arise anywhere

All of these women and men have positively influenced the state of mental health in our country. But you do not have to be a US president or a Black person with a Ph.D. to find ways to contribute to a better understanding of the importance of mental wellness. No matter your race, your education level, your political leanings, your geographic location, or your financial status, you can be a compassionate listener, an eager volunteer, a creative problem-solver, or an informative communicator. You can denounce stigma, opening minds and hearts. As we pay tribute to our presidents and Black history makers, let us find inspiration to follow their examples in becoming champions of mental wellness in the US—one day and one person at a time.

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