Teacher’s sneak preview: Clifford Beers: The mind that sparked the mental health reform movement

This article will post on Disability Rights Galaxy on October 8, 2014. 

This Teacher’s Sneak Preview is provided for lesson planning purposes.

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Question: What kinds of mistreatment do you think were common in early 20th century mental health institutions in the United States?

A. Forced restraint
B. Physical beatings
C. Forced mental health treatment
D. Lack of water/living space
E. All of the above

Answer: E. All of the above.


Clifford Whittingham Beers: (1876-1943)

The early life of Clifford Whittingham Beers went according to plan. He was in the process of fulfilling any late nineteenth century boy from New Haven, Connecticut’s dreams, heading to school at Yale University. What was supposed to be a point of acceleration forward in his life, however, is where his conflict begins. In 1894, Beers’ brother was diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that would kill him in 1900. By 1895, however, Beers remembers being overtaken with fear that the same fate might befall him: “Doomed to what I then considered a living death, I thought of epilepsy, I dreamed epilepsy… (until) my overweight imagination seemed to drag me to the very verge of an attack” (Beers 9).

In the course of his years at Yale, this fear would consume Beers. By the time he graduated from the University in 1897, Beers states that the polarizing ups and downs of what would eventually be called “insanity” had already overtaken him (Beers 12). Years of these feelings finally came to a head in June 1900, when Clifford Beers tried to end his life. His suicide attempt, admittedly halfhearted, resulted in two shattered feet and a concussion after Beers’ hurriedly jumped from a third-story window in his family’s New Haven home.

Mental health reform
Mental health reform

Beers’ suicide attempt began a three-year period of moving from one institution to another, having been labeled as “insane”. Institutions for the insane, or insane asylums, were run by psychiatrists of the time but were operated more like prisons than hospitals. Throughout his autobiography, Beers refers to three institutions at which he spent time. He refuses to name the institutions in hopes that he can make his point clear that the issues he encountered were commonplace in mental health institutions of this time period. Clifford Beers’ autobiography speaks in shocking detail about the various forms of mistreatment he and other inmates encountered. As he details his institutionalized years, his state of mind and intentions change. As his release draws near, Beers’ “insanity” seems to in most senses have left him. He begins to view his experience more journalistically, looking to expose the institutions for the horrors that lie within them. In doing so, Beers manages to detail accounts of relationships, people, and experiences both felt and witnessed in a remarkable fashion. Beers’ perspective as a person perceived as “insane” allows readers a unique insight into what  life was like as an institutionalized patient.

While Beers encountered disturbing conditions at every institution he spent time in, his time in the third institution seems most disturbing. He describes his cell as having no bed, and being heavily barred, and increasingly decrepit. Patients were regularly denied the ability to shower for upwards of three weeks at a time. It is during this time that he finds himself in what he calls the “bull pen”, the violent ward in which Beers remembers encountering several horror stories (Beers 159-180). Even beyond the forced restraint and constant surveillance, Beers was often choked and physically beaten by attendants much larger than he was. He found himself unable to defend himself or fight back, as he had been weakened by being restrained too tightly in a straitjacket. These times in the State hospital were, as he explains, the most difficult months of his incarceration.

We cannot say that Beers condoned the actions of the attendants, as he certainly did not approve of beatings and forced restraint. He does, however, seem to understand the human condition that leads to their actions: “Place a bludgeon in the hand of any man, with instructions to use it when necessary, and the gentler and more humane methods of persuasion are naturally forgotten or deliberately abandoned” (Beers 122). Beers recognized the issue of institutionalization to be more systemic than a case of individuals around him allowing their power to be corrupted. He understood that neither he nor anyone else deemed “insane” in the state of Connecticut was unique in their experience. He therefore decided, after his final release from the State hospital, to do something about it.

For Clifford Beers, his autobiography was the first step, and something that he had thought about doing throughout his time in the three institutions. He would release the book in 1908, and by 1909 he had founded the National Committee for National Hygiene (now Mental Health America). The Clifford Beers Clinic was founded next, and still exists today after becoming the United States’ first outpatient mental health clinic in 1913.

Beers would continue fighting for the rights of people with mental illness in institutions and deinstitutionalization, a movement that would not truly gain traction until Geraldo Rivera’s expository report on Willowbrook State School in 1972. He was indeed a man well ahead of his time, evidenced by the fact that his book is still widely popular and in print today. Clifford Beers’ fingerprints are everywhere when examining the mental health reform that has swept the nation over the past decades. Clifford Beers is a true agent of change in disability history.


Discussion Questions

Abuse and neglect at ‘insane asylums’ was rampant, yet virtually unknown to the public in the early 1900’s. Why do you think people with disabilities were treated so poorly?

Are there any other historical injustices that Clifford Beers’ experiences in institutions remind you of?

How are people with mental illness portrayed in the media today? What effect does this have on people both with and without mental illness?

What are some current problems with the mental health system today?

What does ‘mental health’ mean to you?

What do you do to relieve your stress for your own mental health? Are there things that you can improve on?


Primary Sources

Beers, Clifford Whittingham. A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography. New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1908. Print.

Secondary Sources

Hansan, Jack. “Beers, Clifford Whittingham.” Social Welfare History Project. N.p., n.d. Web.