NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Clifford Whittingham Beers (1876 – 1943)
Pioneering Contributions: Clifford Beers was the founder of the mental hygiene movement and what today is Mental Health America (MHA), the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. With more than 320 affiliates nationwide, Mental Health America works to improve the mental health of all Americans, especially the 54 million individuals with mental disorders.
Career Highlights: In 1900 Beers attempted suicide albeit halfheartedly. After initial hospitalization and an assessment from the family doctor, Beers was hospitalized for most of the following three years at three Connecticut institutions for convalescence, both physical and emotional. Mental illness had occurred in the family before, afflicting Beer's mother and an aunt. The hospital conditions, along with Beers' torments, both mental and physical, are thoroughly documented in his autobiography: A Mind That Found Itself. It was published in 1908 and immediately became a success and translated into several languages.
The occasional acts of kindness or thoughtful care Beers experienced in the institutions were overwhelmed by casual, brutal acts from untrained attendants and punitive rather than therapeutic instructions from heedless physicians. Cursed, spat upon and beaten regularly, Beers and his fellow patients were a ready cash source for the "doctors" who in those days were often just sanitarium owners collecting a weekly rate. Beers even documented the hiring of a tramp as an attendant whose last real job had been working laying track on a railroad crew. After a shower and new set of clothes, the tramp was assigned to supervising patients in a ward the next day.
In 1908 Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene. The Society expanded the following year, becoming the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The Societies, both in Connecticut then nationally, set forth the following goals:
• To improve attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill;
• To improve services for the mentally ill;
• To work for the prevention of mental illness and promote mental health.
Clifford Beers brushed aside concerns over the rapid expansion of the two organizations he had founded. There were staff issues at both offices, but he continued to solicit donations from wealthy family friends and the Yale alumni who would still take his calls. Others could walk away, change jobs; but not Beers. Every day he woke up knowing that across the country mental patients were being abused just as he had been. Beatings for petty offenses, spiteful, untrained guards harassing patients too confused to understand simple commands; hospital administrators taking per capita fees and putting patients into overcrowded rooms where they could be easily watched by just a couple of guards with truncheons.
He knew the first thing the new National Committee needed to do: count the number of mentally ill persons institutionalized in the United States, and develop a list of medical professionals to treat them. Thomas Salmon, MD was named the first medical director, a role he would hold for many years. Dr. Samuel Hamilton was in charge of the Society's state surveys and reports on the conditions in institutions across the country, the hammer through which the NCMH would become a national force for reform and an advocate for the mentally ill.
In 1920 the Committee produced a set of model commitment laws that
were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states. The Committee's studies and reports on mental health, mental illness, and treatment prompted real changes in the mental health care system. With a particular focus on the need to establish comprehensive programs of patient aftercare, these state surveys propelled a number of state institutions to hire social workers for the first time.
The First International Congress for Mental Hygiene in 1930 was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Beers' career. The Congress convened
3,042 officially registered participants from forty-one countries "with many more actually in attendance" for constructive dialogue about fulfilling the mission of the mental health movement. The movement was well established when Beers died July 9,1943.
Biographical Information: Clifford Beers was born in New Haven, CT to Ida (nee Cook) and Robert Beers on March 30, 1876. He was the second youngest of five children. Beers attended local public schools and he dutifully passed his exams, performing at the highest level only when challenged and then reverting to his normal average student status. He graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University in 1897.
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