3 Decades of Legislation and the Changing Views on Mental Health

3 Decades of Legislation and the Changing Views on Mental Health

One of the most difficult public policy challenges of the last several decades has been deciding how to approach mental health issues. Over the last 30 years, Congress has passed several key laws that have significantly changed how people approach mental health and how the government influences treatment. As scientific evidence and therapeutic discoveries abound within the academy and the general public, laws often struggle to keep up; however, there is reason to hope, as recent changes promise to make mental health care more accessible than ever before.

Overcoming Mental Illness Stigmas

Throughout most of history, mental illness has been associated with supernatural forces or personality flaws. For instance, people who struggled with depression, schizophrenia or other debilitating disorders were believed to be plagued by demons; likewise, addicts were thought to possess weak characters. Although few educated people still cling to these superstitions, underlying prejudices are difficult to overcome. Many people still feel uncomfortable discussing mental health issues, and the people who suffer from these conditions often feel too ashamed to seek the help they need.

The most powerful weapon against mental health stigmatization is accurate information. The more these issues are pulled out of the cultural shadows and into the light, the easier it is for people to seek and receive help. This process happens in the following ways:

  • Addiction and mental health science is taught in school
  • People hear the stories of recovering addicts
  • Firsthand observations of how affected individuals can change

The sooner celebrities, spiritual leaders and even family members share openly about their psychological struggles, the quicker these stigmas disappear. Although much progress has been made in this area, there is still much work to be done.

Key Mental Health Legislation

Even though the delay can be frustrating, the laws related to mental health treatment reflect the facts behind the issues. The entire issue of mental health (and the role the government should play in its treatment) has changed radically in just the last three decades.

The first mental health treatment facilities started to show up in the US in the middle of the 18th century. By the early 1800s, a network of government-financed mental hospitals began to treat schizophrenia, personality disorder and psychosis. In many cases, even less severe issues (such as depression, anxiety disorders, phobias and obsessive behavioral disorders) were treated in psychiatric hospitals or asylums—though sometimes with painful and ineffective means. As the population grew, these hospitals became overcrowded and patients received less attention and care.

In the 1950s, due both to public outrage over deplorable conditions and professional objections to ineffective treatment mechanisms, the US government began deinstitutionalizing mental health treatment and moving it to local community health centers. Although President Jimmy Carter increased funding for mental health treatment in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan discontinued that approach and then began significant defunding of mental health care in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of patients were released from federal and state hospitals. Many of them ended up populating state and federal prisons. Others became chronically homeless and impoverished. While the intention of many people who opposed these insane asylums was admirable, the impact of deinstitutionalizing so many people devastated public health and human rights.

The following legislative acts influenced how the government approaches mental health and addiction:

  • In 1946, President Harry Truman passed the National Mental Health Act, which allocates Federal funds to mental health treatment and research
  • In 1963, the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Health Centers Construction Act was passed, which establishes cheaper treatments; cheaper treatment reduces the number of people who can be institutionalized against their will
  • In 1977, President Carter established the President’s Commission on Mental Health
  • In 1979, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was established to support education, advocacy and research services for people with significant psychological disorders
  • In 1985, President Ronald Reagan passed the Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act
  • In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, which includes significant issues related to mental health
  • The Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 requires health insurance companies to cover the costs of psychiatric disorders the same way they cover physiological issues (signed into law in 2008)
  • President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act establishes universal health insurance coverage for all Americans, which means addiction and other mental health issues have treatment

These acts all make mental health treatment more affordable and available to all Americans.

Changing Views of Addiction and Mental Health in Culture

While great progress has been made in how the average person understands mental health issues, there is still work to be done. At the heart of modern thought on these issues is the realization that multiple issues often contribute to psychological health, so the most effective way to address those issues is fully integrated therapy that includes the following elements:

  • Education
  • Accountability
  • Personal counseling
  • Support group sessions
  • Innovative treatments related to creative arts, relaxation techniques, adventure therapy and assertiveness training
  • Long-term aftercare to support ongoing recovery

Addiction is also now understood and treated as a disease instead of a character flaw or religious problem. With the proper medical and therapeutic treatment, a wide range of disorders can be managed or even healed.

How to Find the Help You Need

If you would like more information about addiction, treatment or the ever-changing laws related to these issues, then please call our toll-free helpline right now. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day with free, confidential advice. Whether you or a loved one struggles with depression, anxiety, depression or addiction, our staff is here for you. Call now for instant, professional support.