What does it take to change a paradigm, a convention of thought built up over decades? It doesn’t happen by accident. Most often paradigms shift through a concerted effort of collective action. Nowhere is this more clear than in the world of mental health and illness. In the 19th century, and for much of the 20th, the mentally ill were treated as little more than criminals, warehoused in squalid structures that resembled prisons more than health care facilities.
One such survivor of these conditions was Clifford Beers. Born in New Haven in 1876, Beers was committed to an institution in 1900 for what would now be known as bipolar disorder. In a 1908 autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, Beers detailed treatments that today seem savage and cruel, and were undoubtedly seen as cruel by many who read his account at the time. The same year, Beers would found the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene, using a name very much reflecting the attitudes of the time. This year the organization — now called Mental Health Connecticut — is marking its 110th anniversary with a series of fundraisers designed to educate the public and change paradigms of thought around mental health.
Beginning with the example set by Beers in the early 1900s, MHC has grounded much of its work in advocating for different and better conditions for the mentally ill. President and Chief Executive Luis Perez says that MHC began to do a lot more education as an organization beginning with the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which provided federal funding for research and envisioned a network of community mental health centers rather than the large-scale public institutions that defined mental health care in the past. In the 1980s and ’90s, as institutions across the U.S. shuttered, those living with mental illness were discharged into communities, with varying levels of support once they got there. It was during this era that MHC added to its mission by providing services to the mentally ill.
Perez describes the modern-day group’s work as splitting up into three broad categories: advocacy, education and service, each corresponding to a different era of public engagement with mental health and illness. Perez says that just over two years ago, MHC started undergoing another modernization. It was as simple and as complicated as shifting from a focus on illness to a focus on health. The grounding of the organization had been “all in the negative, perhaps even stigmatizing language. And we changed our mission to improve mental health for all Connecticut residents,” Perez says.
In marking the 110th anniversary of the organization, MHC has launched a fundraising campaign around a hashtag, #Be1of110. In the true spirit of Beers — his memoir was ultimately about recovery and health — the campaign invites participants and fundraisers to share activities that are mentally healthy for them. In May, 10 students from the UConn School of Medicine began a cross-country cycling trip, starting at the Pacific Ocean near Seattle, and cycling all the way back to Connecticut before classes start again in late summer. The cross-country ride for UConn medical students is in its 13th year, and every year the students pick a charity to fundraise for. Christine Donat, a UConn medical student living in New Britain, says, “We wanted to choose a charity that had a national impact but also a local impact, and we really liked that MHC was really local to us.” Rohan Joshi, a student in dentistry also going on the ride, pointed to what is a generally high rate of suicide among doctors. “We definitely want to break the stigma,” he says.
The medical students hope to raise some $25,000 as part of their campaign.