JFK’s Community Mental Health Act Turns 50

Vice President Joe Biden will be in Boston today speaking at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library hosting The Kennedy Forum on community mental health. The Forum is a two-day event falling around the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Community Mental Health Act by President John F. Kennedy.

This was the last legislation signed by JFK before his assassination and provided funding for community mental health treatment centers with the goal of deinstitutionalizing those with mental illness. Instead of being held in state facilities with reputations for neglect and poor treatment, the mentally ill were encouraged to seek treatment at local community facilities. The intent was that people could get treatment while living and working at home.

In 1963 the typical stay at a mental institution was 11 years for someone with schizophrenia. The legislation to build 1500 centers intended to reduce the 500,000 people living in mental institutions by 50%. However, only half of the centers were ever built or funded while 90% of the beds in mental institutions were cut. This translated into many without a place to go – often ending up homeless or in prison.

JFK’s nephew, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who leads the Kennedy Forum on community mental health explains, “The goals of deinstitutionalization were perverted. People who did need institutional care got thrown out, and there weren’t the programs in place to keep them supported.” To improve this, Patrick Kennedy has gathered advocates like Joe Biden, Chelsea Clinton, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall for the Forum to come up with an agenda for improving mental health care.