On Sept. 13, 1962, President John Kennedy challenged our country to go to the moon. Less than seven years later, on July 20, 1969, the brave astronauts met the challenge and landed on the moon. They accomplished a goal presented by the president not because it was easy but because it was hard and because that challenge “is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

What few people know is that Kennedy issued another challenge in that era, first to a presidential committee and then to Congress on Feb. 5, 1963. The challenge was to close the state institutions and create a community mental health system. He posed this challenge because of the conditions of the day and the comprehensive set of recommendations from President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration on the components of a community mental health system.

In his address to Congress, Kennedy stated: “This situation has been tolerated far too long. It has troubled our national conscience — but only as a problem unpleasant to mention, easy to postpone, and despairing of solution … . The states have depended on custodial hospitals and homes. Many such hospitals and homes have been shamefully understaffed, overcrowded, unpleasant institutions from which death too often provided the only firm hope of release.”

It took less than a year to pass the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963. Kennedy made it law on Oct. 31, 1963, one of the last bills he signed before he was assassinated.

Unfortunately, this challenge, while technically passing, was never implemented, and so today, more than half a century later, we have a partly built mental health system. The mission was not accomplished. We could go to the moon in seven years but not build a mental health system in more than 50.

What it took to meet the moon challenge was gathering the resources, information and the will of our country. We see every day the poor outcomes from not having a complete mental health system, such as poor school performance, homelessness, involvement in our criminal-justice system, boarding in emergency rooms, long wait times and rising suicide rates.

What will it take to finish the challenge posed by President Kennedy 56 years ago? I hope that we as a community are now willing to accept this challenge, are unwilling to postpone it any longer, and will view it as one we intend to accomplish. If we can make it to the moon, we can finish building our mental health system.

 

Sue Abderholden is executive director of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) Minnesota.