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An Act that Time Forgot

“It is amazing and appalling how many people have been duped by such communist schemes as fluoridation and MENTAL HEALTH,” declared an L.A. billboard in the mid 1950s (Torrey 121). During that decade, a wave of anti-communism swept across America, and people started ‘seeing Red.’ Many Americans associated Communism with oppression and fear, causing a paranoia resulting in many false accusations. For many, the fear of Communism led them to fear a strong federal government, as well as a strong federal presence in state and local affairs. In 1956, conservatives rallied to oppose the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act, because they believed it would give the Alaskan government excessive control, similar to the control wielded by governments in places such as Russia and China. Conservatives feared the Alaskan government would unconstitutionally relegate politically uncooperative residents to concentration camp-like institutions. They warned Alaska would become “Siberia, USA.” Both the federal government and the National Institute of Mental Health supported the Act, and the fervent opposition confused them. The debate came to a head at the Subcommittee hearings of 1956, where the Senate members and the zealous conservatives debated the allegedly Communist aspects of the bill. The conservative Americans’ distrust of government mental health eventually resulted in the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill during the 1960s. Deinstitutionalization had a severely negative effect on America, causing widespread homelessness, increased street violence, and difficult circumstances for those related to the untreated mentally ill. The debate over the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 was significant to America because although the intent of the opposition was not fulfilled, the conservative advocacy later was a major factor in the failures of deinstitutionalization throughout the United States.
The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act (AMHEA) was “written by the territory of Alaska to hospitalize its own mentally ill residents” (Nickerson 118). In 1955, when the bill was proposed, Alaska was not yet a state, and therefore did not have the authority to institutionalize mentally ill people who posed a threat to their communities. Instead, after notification from the Alaskan government, the federal government provided funds for mentally ill Alaskans to travel to a private institution in Oregon. This indirect process prevented patients from receiving timely help. If the legislation passed, the government of Alaska would have the authority to build its own asylums and institutionalize its own residents. In addition, the bill requested the 12.5 million dollars the territory would need to build these mental institutions. When Senator Bob Bartlett introduced the bill in 1955, the House of Representatives regarded it as innocuous, and passed it unanimously. When it fell to the Senate to pass the bill, however, opposition surfaced.
Two main groups, the Minute Women and the American Public Relations Forum (APRF), opposed the bill. Both were political organizations of conservative, nationalistic housewives, based in Southern California (Nickerson 119). They protested the bill, claiming that if the Senate passed it, the government would have the ability to place any citizen into a mental institution, whether or not the person was actually mentally ill. In this way, the groups believed, the Alaskan government would have excessive control over its people. Both the Minute Women and APRF were convinced that the bill would promote communist ideals. They warned Alaska would become “Siberia, USA.”
The anti-AMHEA protestors not only claimed that the act was communist but that the entire concept of mental health was a communist notion. In the 1950s, ‘mental health’ did not refer to one’s psychological well-being. Instead, it was “a relatively new expression, describing an up-and-coming mental field and social medical movement…” (Nickerson 120). Conservatives
were concerned with the idea of mental health because in post-World War II America, the field of psychology was becoming much more prominent (113). Psychology was, the conservatives worried, a threat to the religious underpinnings of the culture. The WWII draft revealed a startling number of American men assessed to be afflicted with a form of mental illness (Martindale 24-25). After the war, the veterans’ services groups urged returning soldiers to seek psychological help (26). Upset by this upsurge in psychology, many conservative Americans felt threatened and worried, and the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act gave them their opportunity to attack the growing field of psychology.
When the Act came before the Senate subcommittee, the opposition came as a surprise to the senators. The Subcommittee, part of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, supported the act, and did not fully understand why others opposed it. For example, when hearing the outlandish testimonials of anti-AMHEA protestors, subcommittee member Senator George Malone “threw up his hands and asked, ‘When did it become so complex and so controversial? All we want to do is to take care of anyone who is mentally incompetent in a way that he might be dangerous to himself or others…’” (Nickerson 120). Despite the increasingly widespread opposition to the bill, the subcommittee decided to endorse the measure.
Also supporting the bill was the National Association for Mental Health. The previous name of the organization was the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (Torrey 170). In 1908, Clifford Whittingham Beers, a former asylum patient, had published a memoir about his experiences in mental institutions. He titled it A Mind that Found Itself, and the book became extremely popular. Later, he founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. In 1955, the group changed their name to the National Association for Mental Health (NAMH). (Torrey 170) With the new prominence of mental health, treatment of mental illness was becoming more
acceptable to society. In the mid-1950s, close to the time of the AMHEA controversy, the NAMH launched a nation-wide publicity campaign with slogans such as “Mental Health is Everybody’s Business” (171). By their widespread campaign supporting psychology, the NAMH encouraged individuals and families to seek mental help, thereby indirectly supporting the AMHEA.

The protest that the Minute Women and the APRF had instigated spread, becoming a nationwide movement against mental health. Many people, mainly conservatives but also some liberals, protested the AMHEA as well as the mental health movement in their own communities (Nickerson 89). For example, in 1954, thirty-five young men in black leather jackets stormed a meeting held to discuss the building of a new community mental health center. The men claimed that the building of the center was part of a communist plot (Torrey 172). Letters and petitions from all over the country flooded the Subcommittee, from people protesting the passage of the AMHEA. The Minute Women and APRF had sparked a national movement against mental health.

Many other groups and individuals used the debate over the AMHEA to add more credibility to their own debates and issues. For example, John Kaspar was a racist, conservative Senator and organizer for the White Citizens’ Council who used the debate to further his campaign against Jews (Parr 121). He, like many other conservative Americans, testified in front of the Subcommittee, opposing the act. While testifying, he claimed that “almost one hundred percent of all psychiatric therapy is Jewish and about eighty percent of psychiatrists are Jewish…” (Kominsky 111). The opposition to the bill moved from one of anti-mental health protestors to more widespread groups of people hoping to further their own agendas

The debate came to a head during the Subcommittee hearings of February and March of 1956. Senators like George Malone and protestors like George Kaspar debated whether the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act should be passed by the Senate. Stephanie Williams, the founder of the American Public Relations Forum, testified in front of the Subcommittee, claiming that if the government gave Alaska land for the asylums, Russia could buy the land from the territory. She claimed that the bill “contains nothing to prevent Russia from buying the entire million acres. They already say Alaska belongs to them” (Daily Alaska Empire). Other opponents claimed their own expertise was superior to that of the senators’. A member of the Women’s Patriotic Committee on National Defense, Mrs. Ernest Howard, claimed that the Senators were not aware of the issues that caused the opposition concern. She explained: "Those of us who have been in the study and research work of the United Nations [feel] that we are experts in this . . . you as Senators with all the many commitments and the many requirements, are not able to go into all these things” (Kominsky 112). During the hearings, the Subcommittee was very confused with the negative reaction of the protestors. The bill’s author, Senator Bob Bartlett, summarized the senators’ response when he expressed his opinion: “I am completely at a loss in attempting to fathom the reasons why certain individuals and certain groups have now started a letter-writing campaign … to defeat the act. I am sure that if the letter writers would consult the facts, they would join with all others not only in hoping this act would become law but in working for its speedy passage and approval” (Nickerson 120). The Subcommittee agreed, as was shown by their reply to other opposition of the act. When encountered with John Kaspar’s racist rant, Senator Alan Bible responded: “I do not think the committee will be particularly concerned with this trend of your dissertation. I think we have some very fine Jewish people”
(121). The opposing sides of the debate over the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act came together during the Senate Subcommittee hearings.
Although the heated controversy slowed the passage of the AMHEA, on July 10, 1956, after “less than ten minutes of debate” among the senators, the bill was passed (Torrey 14). However, the opponents of the bill did affect the contents of the final law. In an effort to calm the protest, the Senate, led by Barry Goldwater, revised the bill. Senators assured their constituents that the bill would not allow Alaska to place innocents under the control of the government. The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act passed despite the resistance.

The debate left conservatives with an intense distrust of mental institutions and the way that the government managed them. This distrust persisted after the bill was passed and later contributed to policies regarding and causing the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1960s. Deinstitutionalization is, as E.F. Torrey puts it in The Insanity Offense, “a policy to move psychiatric patients out of public mental hospitals and place them in the community” (1). In other words, deinstitutionalization means moving the mentally ill from public institutions to the community: living in a group home, living with a trained “helper,” or living on one’s own or with one’s family (Johnson and Traustadottir 96-97). The Community Mental Health Act, the major legislation to initiate deinstitutionalization, included the stipulation that a person could not be involuntarily institutionalized unless they posed a serious risk of danger to themselves or others (Parr 11). Because of this, many mentally ill people who previously would have been institutionalized because they were suspected to be dangerous were now able to roam the streets until they committed a violent crime. Other causes of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s included the development of more medications for treating mental illness, the social belief that treatment
would be more productive close to home, and the founding of health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Deinstitutionalization was at first considered a positive change for society because of the often-horrendous conditions in mental institutions. From Bethlem Asylum in England, the first mental institution ever founded, the conditions were horrible- Bethlem’s nickname, “Bedlam,” still means ‘chaos’ (Rutherford 9). Conditions were worst in the early 1900s, and the public regarded the asylums as terrifying madhouses. Enoch Calloway, a doctor in an asylum, wrote a memoir revealing the terrible conditions of mental institutions. Calloway based his book, Asylum, on his experiences working in the Worcester State Asylum, where the conditions were less than ideal. Most horrendous were the “back wards,” a building where the worst cases were kept. The inmates were clothed in “strong dresses,” garments similar to straitjackets. The asylum staff confined patients to a common room throughout the day, leaving them to defecate on the bare stone floors. Later, workers washed the waste down drains in the floor (Calloway 7). Doctors performed lobotomies on the most uncooperative patients as a “last resort,” curing some but usually causing “adverse effects” (31-32). The doctors used cocaine to calm and anesthetize patients before minor surgeries (54). Other asylums admitted patients because of stress, physical trauma, learning disabilities, or even epilepsy (Rutherford 29). The horrible conditions in asylums ignited the deinstitutionalization movement.

However, the debate over the passage of the AMHEA would prove detrimental to the deinstitutionalization process in America. When Congress passed the Community Mental Health Centers act in 1963, they were anxious to avoid the angry rhetoric that was caused by the AMHEA (Torrey 122). In an effort to discourage any fears of excessive governmental control, the legislation included a stipulation that a person could not be involuntarily institutionalized
unless they posed a serious and immediate risk of danger to themselves or others (Parr 11). Because of this, many mentally ill people who would have been institutionalized without the new laws were now on the streets until they hurt themselves or another.

Deinstitutionalization has increased the number of homeless individuals in the United States. The 1963 Community Mental Health Act prompted the move of mentally ill citizens from institutions to community mental health centers (CMHC). However, most of the centers were poorly and hastily created, and the by the late 1970s and early 1980s, fell apart (Martindale 23). The mentally ill previously placed in the CMHC were often forced to live homeless on the streets. The mentally ill, because of the collapse and lack of funding for the mental health centers, make up a significant amount of the homeless population. About thirty-five percent of the homeless are severely mentally ill (Torrey 17), not including the seventy-five percent of the homeless who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Not only are many of the homeless mentally ill, but they often go unmedicated (7). When a mentally ill person has no permanent address, it is much more likely that they will “slip through the system” (Martindale 121) and not be placed or helped by the government. Many of the mentally ill are homeless because of deinstitutionalization.

Approximately one percent of the severely mentally ill (SMI) are dangerous, according to E.F. Torrey in The Insanity Offense (Torrey 6). There are approximately four million SMI people in the United States. Torrey defines SMI as having “schizophrenia, bipolar disorder with psychosis, [and] depression with psychosis” (6). Therefore, about forty thousand SMI people are extremely dangerous. However, if they do not prove dangerous to themselves or others, even if they have threatened someone, they may not be involuntarily detained (Torrey)

There are many mentally ill whose lives have ended prematurely, or who have ended another’s life. One example of this problem was Malcoum Tate. One of nine children, Malcoum was his mother’s and teacher’s favorite. He earned good grades and “never told stories” (Torrey 9). However, at the age of sixteen, Tate claimed God talked to him. He dropped out of school and began smoking marijuana. Eventually, he assaulted a man he believed was “the brother of Ugandan president Idi Amin” which “led to Malcoum’s first psychiatric hospitalization” (9). After the hospital released Tate, he moved to North Carolina with his family. He next declared that he was a prophet, sent by God to rid the world of evil (11). He claimed that his young niece, N’Zinga, was “the devil” (11) and he proclaimed he would kill her, although he never physically assaulted her. Two years later, Tate’s condition had seriously worsened. He was jailed often for offenses caused by his condition, and his family was extremely worried about the threats towards N’Zinga (12). Eventually, his mother and sister took Malcoum’s issues into their own hands, and shot him (14). Malcoum’s mother later remembered, “Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do” (9). Although the story of Malcoum Tate is tragic, there are many like it. In some of these cases, not only does a mentally ill person die, but innocent bystanders suffer as well. For example, Andrew Goldstein pushed a woman onto a train track to her death, and a seventeen-year-old schizophrenic fatally shot a police officer (Torrey). In addition, some mentally ill living in communities harass their fellow citizens. For example, Jennifer Shields lived next door to a schizophrenic man for four years. The man unsuccessfully sued them for a frivolous cause, sent sexual messages to Ms. Shields, and threw broken glass into the yard in attempt to hurt the three young children of the family (Shields). The mentally ill, because they are often violent, pose a threat to their communities

When people who are raising families are mentally ill, because they are not required to take medication, their children often grow up in a poor environment. Susan Nathaniel wrote Daughters of Madness, a memoir about her own childhood with a mentally ill mother and also featuring other women’s stories. Most of the mothers verbally abused their daughters, calling them names and degrading them. Many of the daughters Nathaniel interviewed felt a lasting sense of shame throughout their lives, as if they were not “good enough” for anything (Nathaniel 1). Nathaniel claims that this comes from the childhood abuse. In addition, a mentally ill parent can take much-needed focus off the child. One mentally ill woman left her young son and daughter at home while she roamed the neighborhood and socialized with friends. During this
time, the boy beat and sexually abused his sister (31). Another of the women interviewed said she felt “like [she] didn’t have a mom” (172). A mentally ill parent is likely to deprive a child of a normal, safe environment.

Conservatives and liberals alike protested the AMHEA because they had a fear of the government controlling their personal choices. Conservatives opposed it because they feared not only the Russian and German psychiatrists but also the communist oppression associated with those countries. The Senate Subcommittee disagreed with the zealous conservatives, and attempted to explain why the bill would be beneficial to Alaska and the United States. The debate was a major cause of deinstitutionalization, as it bestowed a dislike of the government mental health system on conservatives. Deinstitutionalization caused an increase in homelessness, a danger to the community, and poor childhoods for the children of the mentally ill. The debate over the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act was truly caused not by fear of mental institutions but by trepidation of government control.?

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Ophelia Payne said...
Feb. 5, 2013 at 11:16 pm
What a fantastic piece!! I'm working on an MSW and found it when I was hunting for information on the AMHEA. Where did you find all of the history??
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