By E. Fuller Torrey, MD, for the Wall Street Journal
On Feb. 5, 1963, 50 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress on "Mental Illness and Mental Retardation." He proposed a new program under which the federal government would fund community mental-health centers, or CMHCs, to take the place of state mental hospitals. As Kennedy envisioned it, "reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolations will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability."
President Kennedy's proposal was historic because the public care of mentally ill individuals had been exclusively a state responsibility for more than a century. The federal initiative encouraged the closing of state hospitals and aborted the development of state-funded outpatient clinics in process at that time.
Over the following 17 years, the feds funded 789 CMHCs with a total of $2.7 billion ($20.3 billion in today's dollars). During those same years, the number of patients in state mental hospitals fell by three quarters"”to 132,164 from 504,604"”and those beds were closed down.
From the beginning, it was clear that CMHCs were not interested in taking care of the patients being discharged from the state hospitals. Instead, they focused on individuals with less severe problems sometimes called "the worried well." Federal studies reported individuals discharged from state hospitals initially made up between 4% and 7% of the CMHCs patient load, and the longer the CMHC was in existence the lower this percentage became.
It has now become politically correct to claim that this federal program failed because not enough centers were funded and not enough money was spent. In fact, it failed because it did not provide care for the sickest patients released from the state hospitals. When President Ronald Reagan finally block-granted federal CMHC funds to the states in 1981, he was not killing the program. He was disposing of the corpse.
Fifty years later, we can see the results of "the open warmth of community concern and capability." Approximately half of the mentally ill individuals discharged from state mental hospitals, many of whom had family support, sought outpatient treatment and have done well. The other half, many of whom lack family support and suffer from the most severe illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, have done poorly.