COLUMN: JFK's mental health assistance legacy lives on

Historians remember John F. Kennedy’s presidency for several reasons. The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis almost led the world into nuclear war during his administration.

He called for a New Frontier to take America into the unknown waters of the 1960s. And, of course, he also promised to put a man on the moon before 1970 struck, forever cementing America’s place among the cosmos.

However, Kennedy should also be remembered for doing his best to assist America’s mentally ill. It was and continues to be important work.

On February 5, 1963, Kennedy delivered a speech to Congress on the subject of mental illness and those with intellectual disabilities. In the speech he urged Congress to drastically increase its efforts to assist this segment of the population.

According to the American Presidency Project, Kennedy said, “I am convinced that, if we apply our medical knowledge and social insights fully, all but a small portion of the mentally ill can eventually achieve a wholesome and constructive social adjustment.”

The following October, in his last piece of legislation he signed before his assassination, Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law. The act was designed to shift America’s focus away from placing patients in large mental health institutions and, instead, begin treating them in community health centers.

The bill was extremely successful in this regard. According to Young Minds Advocacy, “By 1980, the inpatient population at public psychiatric hospitals had declined by 75 percent.”

However, many barriers to mental health treatment remained. According to Unite for Sight, a health non-profit organization, claimed some studies of community health centers revealed that some did not adequately provide care and treatment for their patients.

The organization claimed “other studies report that ‘loneliness, poverty, bad living conditions and poor physical health’ are prevalent among mentally ill patients living in their communities.”

Another issue, according to Pysch Central, is these community health centers might only provide services for middle class homes and families, as those with mental illness who are in lower socioeconomic brackets may not be able to afford mental health coverage.

Two years ago, President Obama took an important step in continuing Kennedy’s work on mental health care reform.

On April 1, 2014, President Obama signed the Excellence in Mental Health Act into law. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the law will have invested $900 million during the course of two years in eight different states to provide mental health services.

This act was an important step in the right direction toward making mental health reform a reality. More action will need to be taken in the future to ensure those in all socioeconomic brackets can receive comprehensive mental health coverage.

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