Next week marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy signing historic legislation known as the Community Mental Health Act (back when the name of legislature plainly reflected what was in it). It was the country’s boldest attempt to bring mental health care into the modern era by moving people out of inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and put them back in the community where they belong, making mental health care affordable and readily available to all Americans.
And due to the federal government slashing funding for mental health care in the 1980s, the legislation was wildly successful in emptying out state psychiatric hospitals of old. The problem is, they had nowhere to go, because the government never bothered to come anywhere close to funding community mental health centers to make them an equivalent replacement.
John F. Kennedy’s vision here was bold but sadly unrealized. Fifty years later, our biggest providers of mental health care in the U.S.A. are not hospitals or community mental health centers at all… but prisons.