Clifford Whittingham Beers (March 30,1876 – July 9,1943) – Mental Patient, Author of a Biography Describing His Institutional Treatment and Founder of Mental Health America
“A pen rather than a lance has been my weapon of offense and defense; with its point I should prick the civic conscience and bring into a neglected field men and women who should act as champions for those afflicted thousands least able to fight for themselves.” — Clifford Beers
NOTE: This entry is about Clifford Whittingham Beers, the founder of Mental Health America and a pioneer in advocating for improved treatment of mental illness. It was excerpted from the booklet “Clifford W. Beers: The Founding of Mental Health 1908-1935” produced by The Human Spirit Initiative, an organization with a mission to inspire people to desire to make a difference and then act on it. Note: Michael Gray, working with Ted Deutsch, Deutsch Communications Group authored the narrative from which this entry is taken.
The leaders of The Human Spirit Initiative believe that today’s established organizations were new ideas 75-100 years ago and we owe those ideas to their founders. By studying, researching and communicating the details of the lives of these founding leaders within the context of their times, it is possible to create greater understanding of and commitment to strengthening civil society through individual initiative and collective endeavors in building community.
For more information on The Human Spirit Initiative and a list of their publications visit: www.human-spirit-initiative.org
Introduction: In 1900, while working for an interior designer, Beers broke down mentally and attempted suicide. He suffered from hallucinations and delusions and manic-depressive episodes. From August 1900 to September, 1903 he was hospitalized in three different institutions. Upon his release he began to write a book about his experiences: A Mind That Found Itself, published in 1908. It immediately became a success and experienced numerous printings and was translated into several languages. Later In 1908, Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene, in 1909 the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (in 1950 it was recognized as the National Association for Mental Health in the USA) and in 1931 the International Foundation for Mental Health Hygiene.
Clifford Beer’s Youth and Mental Illness: Beers was born in New Haven, CT to Ida (nee Cook) and Robert Beers on March 30, 1876. He was the second youngest of five children. Beers attended local public schools and he dutifully passed his exams, performing at the highest level only when challenged and then reverting to his normal middling student status. He graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1897. That same year his next older brother experienced what was believed to be an attack of epilepsy. The brother began having “night attacks.” Epilepsy, doctors said. Soon he was hospitalized, but then spent the next two years at home. A round-the-world cruise (the remedy du jour for well-off families) only drained the resources of family and friends. The remainder of his life was spent in seclusion on a Hartfordfarm. Ultimately doctors determined that he died of a brain tumor.
But mental illness had occurred in the family before with Beers mother and an aunt, according to Norman Dain’s biography, Clifford W. Beers, Advocate for the Insane. And the idea that he might also be struck ill haunted him. Beers wrote: “…if a brother who had enjoyed perfect health all his life could be stricken with epilepsy, what was to prevent my being similarly afflicted? This was the thought that soon got possession of my mind. The more I considered it, the more nervous I became and the more nervous I became, the more convinced that my own breakdown was only a matter of time. Doomed to what I then considered a living death…” (Beers, 1908. 5)
In 1900 Beers attempted suicide albeit halfheartedly, and in his method revealed the utterly conflicted nature of his health at the time. After contemplating drowning himself, he decided that he needed to act decisively before his choices were limited by hospital restraints. No doubt he agonized over his options and his own willfulness, considered a running leap out a third story window during a family dinner, but ended up climbing out, hanging on, and then simply dropping. He just missed the cement and a wrought iron fence and landed feet first on a two-foot square patch of grass and shattered nearly every bone in both his feet.
After hospitalization and an assessment from the family doctor, Beers was hospitalized at the first of three institutions for convalescence, both physical and emotional.
From 1900 through most of 1903 he spent time in three Connecticut hospitals or clinics. The hospital conditions, along with Beers’ torments, both mental and physical, are thoroughly documented in his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself. In the beginning, Beers was hearing voices and was convinced that impostors had taken over the role of his family. Everyone around him was working as a spy for the police, determined to prosecute him for attempted suicide and a host of other offenses.The occasional acts of kindness, or thoughtful care were almost totally overwhelmed by casual, brutal acts from untrained attendants and punitive rather than therapeutic instructions from heedless physicians. Cursed, spat upon and beaten regularly, Beers and his fellow patients were a ready cash source for the “doctors” who in those days were often just sanitarium owners collecting a weekly rate. Beers even documented the hiring of a tramp as an attendant whose last real job had been working on a railroad crew laying track. After a shower and new set of clothes, he was in the ward supervising patients the next day.
Early in the book, Beers lets the reader know that this book is not just a cry about his experiences but a plea for all kept in institutions: “…I trust that it is not now too late, however, to protest in behalf of the thousands of outraged patients in private and state hospitals whose mute submission to such indignities has never been recorded.”(Beers, 1908. 19)
He documented petty punishments, forced feedings just for spite, the use of straitjackets and hand-restraints, quaintly called muffs after the ladies’ fashion accessory of the day. He tried to be sympathetic with doctors who didn’t know. The conditions, along with Beers’ torments, both mental and physical, are thoroughly documented in his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself. It is simply amazing he ever got better. But as he described it, logic does not leave an ill person, even when tethered to totally unreasonable or imaginary assumptions. Time and the calendar had lost all meaning, but he did cling to a corner of his sanity, seizing upon a brilliant idea from one of his fellow patients and co-conspirators: To once and for all determine if it really was his brother visiting him instead of an imposter, he secretly had an attendant mail a letter for him, after looking up his brother’s business address in the phone book. In the letter, which his brother was instructed to bring along with him, Beers sought proof that perhaps something he envisioned around him was actually real.
On last Wednesday morning a person who claimed to be George M. Beers of New Haven Ct. clerk in the Directors Office of Sheffield Scientific School and a brother of mine, called to see me. Perhaps what he said was true, but after the events of the last two years I find myself inclined to doubt the truth of everything that is told to me. He said that he would come and see me again sometime next week, and I am sending you this letter in order that you may bring it with you as a passport, provided you are the one who was here on Wednesday. If you did not call as stated please say nothing about this letter to anyone, and when your double arrives, I’ll tell him what I think of him. Would send other messages but while things seem as they do at present it is impossible. Have had someone else address envelope for fear letter might be held up on the way.
Clifford W.B. (Beers, 1908, 35)
Elaborate perhaps, but it worked. It helped Beers get at least a small grip on his senses, thereby forming a thin foundation upon which he could build. Eventually he does resume writing letters to friends and family, some get delivered. And it is the kindness of a visit, to a seemingly insane person that is rendered truly touching and profound. No person reading this will not think immediately of visiting a hospital, even if they have no relatives there; such is the benefit and importance he credits to a personal visit.
Beers also becomes more and more determined to record all the wrongs, ills and transgressions visited upon him and his fellow patients. He sees himself becoming a crusader for the dignity of the institutionalized. Paranoid delusions become delusions of grandeur, eventually moderated into more acceptable, or realistic levels of ambition. But even as he felt himself getting better, he was not finished with the institutions. He realized that to be believed, to be credible, he needed to know more about what went on in other sections of the hospital – the violent ward.
“…Even for a violent ward my entrance was spectacular – if not dramatic. The three attendants regularly in charge naturally jumped to the conclusion that, in me, a troublesome patient had been foisted upon them. They noted my arrival with an unpleasant curiosity, which in turn aroused my curiosity, for it took but a glance to convince me that my burly keepers were typical attendants of the brute force type. Acting on order of the doctor in charge, one of them stripped me of my outer garments; and clad in nothing but underclothes, I was thrust into a cell. Few, if any, prisons in this country contain worse holes that this cell proved to be. It was one of five, situated in a short corridor adjoining the main ward. It was about six feet wide by ten feet long and of a good height. A heavily screened and barred window admitted light and a negligible quality of air, for the ventilation scarcely deserved the name. A patient confined here must lie on the floor with no substitute for a bed but one or two felt druggets (rough blankets). … My first meal increased my distaste for my semi-sociological experiment. For over a month I was kept in a half starved condition…Worst of all, winter was approaching and these, my first quarters, were without heat. … On the other hand, to be famished the greater part of the time was a very conscious hardship. But to be half-frozen, day-in and day-out for a long period was exquisite torture. Of all the suffering I have endured, that occasioned by confinement in cold cells seems to have made the most lasting impression. Hunger is a local disturbance, but when one is cold, every nerve in the body registers its call for help.”
Beers was released, perhaps not cured, but deemed worthy, no longer needing constant supervision. He was also more determined than ever to effect changes and decided that a book, a totally frank and scathingly honest depiction of his own maladies and time in the various asylums, would be the best way to launch his crusade.
The Book Takes Shape
Friends and critics advised Beers to keep quiet about his illness, but he refused to hide his story behind closed doors. Through the publication of his book, A Mind that Found Itself, An Autobiography, Beers found support for what would become his life’s work. He would speak for the patients that no one would listen to, the invisible ones, shut away from polite society, because he used to be one of them. Even after his release from the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane, in his heart, he would always be one of them.
Beers was not the first to try to reform the nation’s treatment of the mentally ill. Dorothea Dix roused state governments 40 years earlier to begin building separate institutions for the mentally ill. In the years between, other crusaders had also “gone public” exposing conditions at the hospitals in newspapers and magazines but had done so in such a sensational fashion that real change never resulted. A few national groups had formed and withered as their initial energy faded and they realized the immensity of the task. That left local organizations, patient’s families and civic-minded public officials to make improvements where they could. Doctors and hospital administrators at the time also were faced with the fact that medical science had little to offer; even ‘treatments’ like insulin comas, shock therapy and lobotomies were still 25 years away. It would be another 30 years before the first wave of drug therapy for mental illness would become available, allowing doctors to “unbolt the doors” and let patients move more freely within the hospital.
With his Yale pedigree, Beers had access to many high level people and organizations, but his Ivy League stature gave everyone the political and social cover often needed to get involved in a cause that might otherwise be brushed aside or deemed undignified. Clifford Beers was never shy about enlisting prominent civic leaders in his crusade on behalf of mental health. Shortly after he was introduced to Henry Phipps, the wealthy philanthropist gave him $50,000 and pledged $50,000 more to come. The following year, Phipps funded the first in-patient hospital for the mentally ill at Johns Hopkins University, which still bears his name today.
As Dain (1980) observed, Beers needed approval and encouragement from important men, father figures. He sought it from, among others, Yale President Hadley, Joseph H. Choate, a philanthropist, lawyer and diplomat, then William James, the period’s preeminent psychologist, and Dr. Adolph Meyer, the internationally known psychiatrist and medical professor. What Beers was aiming at, beyond publication of his book, was the creation of a national and then international organization to:
• Improve care and treatment of people in mental hospitals
• Work to correct the mis-impression that one cannot recover from mental illness
• Help to prevent mental disability and the need for hospitalization
Typical of Beers’ style was this letter to Choate, whom he had never met. It was audacious yet solicitous, flattering yet clever; a style of writing that would become his hallmark.
Though I might present myself at your door, armed with one of society’s unfair skeleton keys – a letter of introduction – I prefer to approach you as I now do: simply as a young man who honestly feels entitled to at least five minutes of your time, and as many minutes as you care to grant because of your interest in the subject to be discussed.
I look to you at this time for your opinion as to the value of some ideas of mine and the feasibility of certain schemes based on them. A few months ago I talked with President Hadley of Yale and briefly outlined my plans. He admitted many of them seemed feasible and would, if carried out, add much to the sum-total of human happiness. His only criticism was that they were “too comprehensive.”
Not until I have staggered an imagination of the highest type will I admit that I am trying to do too much. Should you refuse to see me, believe me when I tell you that you will still be, as you are at this moment, the unconscious possessor of my sincere respect.
Business engagements necessitate my leaving here early on Monday next. Should you care to communicate with me, word sent in care of this hotel will reach me promptly.
Yours very truly,
Clifford W. Beers (Beers, 1908, 97)
Beers received an immediate reply from Choate within the hour and the next morning he had his meeting. While Choate and Hadley may have pushed him toward founding the organization, the most influential backer and advocate was Harvard author, scholar and psychologist William James. James initially accepted Beers manuscript as he had no doubt accepted many others: with that dread notion that he would later deliver the bad news to yet another prospective author. He set it aside for a few months but when he finally got to it, he was floored.
With his suggestions, encouragement and introductions, Beers was on his way toward publication. Many rounds of revisions followed including accommodating Meyer, who was reluctant at first to attach himself to this project and even more cautious when it came to criticizing doctors. Eventually they reached an accommodation and Meyer and Beers were, for a few brief yet formative years, a team as Meyer took on the role of the first medical director of the NCMH. A Mind That Found Itself was published in 1908 and Beers went on to found the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene that same year.
Clifford W. Beers has been memorialized with a plaque in the The Extra Mile — Points of Light Volunteer Pathway located on the sidewalks of downtown Washington, D.C. The Extra Mile is a program of Points of Light Institute, dedicated to inspire, mobilize and equip individuals to volunteer and serve. The Extra Mile was approved by Congress and the District of Columbia. It is funded entirely by private sources.
(Note: A second entry describes the organizational challenges and adversity Clifford Beers experienced as he began organizing a National Committee on Mental Hygiene. The link to this entry is: The American Mental Health Story)