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Pink balloons facing the sky

By Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO

Mental Health America (MHA) is celebrating its 112th birthday. There were times in our history when we could not have imagined getting to this day. But not only are we still here, we find ourselves emerging from one of the most consequential years in our history.

That is worth more reflection. But first think about who we were in 1909 when MHA was founded by a young, white man with lived experience. Much of Clifford Beers’ vision is still relevant today – that all children should have access to mental health screening and services, that prisons should not be used as mental health facilities, and that mental health professionals, not sheriffs and police, should manage mental health programs.

Otherwise, our society was very different in 1909. We were still a decade away from women gaining the right to vote and a century away from women serving at the highest levels of our legislative and executive branches of government. And in much of the country the mental health service delivery system – already segregated from the general health care system – was further segregated by race.

It is impossible to think about our history without understanding the distance we have traveled.

Today, young people still use our resources more than any other group. But it is young women – not young men – who are driving so much of our work. As a group, women have brought awareness of mental health forward in recent years. And they are challenging men to catch up.

And today, we understand that the racist and discriminatory systems that we often took for granted through much of the last century have left an indelible mark on our society’s mental health. While all racial and ethnic groups have experienced the loneliness, financial stress, grief, loss, and worry that have characterized this past year, different population groups are experiencing these things far differently.

How they respond is not only due to the “free” choices they make today, but also to the choices that have been made by generations of policy leaders that resulted in inequitable and discriminatory systems that limited access to affordable, appropriate, high-quality services and supports.

Still, this past year has challenged all our prior notions of “normal.”

What that has done is to draw attention our way. It is pushing more people than ever to talk about mental health. It is pushing employers to support employee mental health. It is pushing media to report on mental health. It is pushing communities to protect mental health.

And, most importantly, it is pushing policy leaders to invest in mental health.

On this MHA birthday, we have more reason for hope.

This is because in the worst of years we can see more clearly all that needs to be done to build a better foundation for our current and future generations. And this truly has been one of the worst of years for all too many people. So, our eyes are now opened wide and we can see just how weak the foundations of our systems have been.  

At MHA, we have been working on changing that by building some new foundations that we hope will prove to support more equitable structures over time. And we have reason to celebrate because so many people are working together with us in realizing our vision. Together, we are looking forward to better systems and structures on the horizon. Happy birthday, MHA!

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