Fall 2017 Issue


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Mental Health America of Virginia Celebrates 80 Years, Origins in Psychiatric Advocacy

Wild Propaganda Schemes for Sterilization Deplored

By Bruce N. Cruser, MSW
Executive Director
Mental Health America of Virginia

This Richmond Times Dispatch headline of February 20, 1937 described the address of Dr. Beverley R. Tucker to the organizational meeting of the Mental Hygiene Society of Virginia, known today as Mental Health America of Virginia (MHAV). Dr. Tucker was a professor of neuropsychiatry at the Medical College of Virginia and founder of what is now Tucker Pavilion at Chippenham Hospital. He was elected that night as the first president of the Society. 

This year marks the 80th anniversary of MHAV, which will be celebrated with a special dinner on Sept. 23 (details below). Although specific issues and services have changed with the times, the agency’s core mission continues to be advocating for mental health and conditions that foster mental wellness. 

For most of its first few decades, the Board presidents were psychiatrists. While the Board today reflects the mental health field and community at large, the agency’s services assist psychiatric patients through free peer support and recovery tools to help adults maintain their wellness plan.

In 1925, Virginia had passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act, a codification of the eugenics movement in the Commonwealth until its abolition in the 1970s. The practice in Virginia’s mental hospitals was wholesale sterilization of those “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.”

Dr. Tucker spoke against “archaic sterilization laws” and of the need for individualized approaches, with trained doctors determining the provision of care. He was joined on the society’s first Board of Directors by many prominent physicians, including Howard R. Masters, R. Finley Gayle, Jr., O. B. Darden, J. Morrison Hutcheson of the Medical Society of Virginia, J. C. Flippen of the UVA School of Medicine, W. T. Sanger of the Medical College of Virginia, and several other leaders of the state’s healthcare, social welfare, education and faith communities.

The modern national movement to reform patient care in mental hospitals had been underway since 1909 when Clifford Beers, along with William James and Adolph Meyer, formed the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (known later as the Mental Health Association, and today as Mental Health America). Beers was a recent Yale graduate and Wall Street financier who jumped from a third story window in an attempt to take his own life. After three years of confinement in public and private mental hospitals in Connecticut, his autobiography (A Mind that Found Itself) about the abuse he and others suffered and his own life experience helped launch the mental health reform movement in the U.S.

The Mental Hygiene Society of Virginia led this state’s mental health reform and public awareness efforts through statewide meetings, presentations and the formation of local affiliates. An early example, from the October 13, 1940 Richmond Times-Dispatch, is a notice that the theme of the society’s annual meeting would be: “How the nation may keep its mental balance in the present national emergency, and how it may safely guide youth through the shellshocked era of the second World War.”  
A 1942 Richmond Times Dispatch editorial praised the society and Dr. R. Finley Gayle, Jr., “a prime mover” of the group and a leader of the State Hospital Board. It added, “Several strikingly able young psychiatrists have in recent years been attracted to the state hospital system, because of the opportunity it now affords to do work that will count. All of them are taking a part in the work of the Virginia Mental Hygiene Society, which deserves a major share of credit for what Virginia is doing in mental medicine.”
In the 1950s, the Virginia organization affiliated with the national Mental Health Association, which adopted as its symbol the Mental Health Bell in 1953. The bell was formed by collecting chains and shackles from mental asylums around the country (including Virginia’s Eastern State Hospital), melting them down at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, and casting the 300 pound Bell of Hope. The bell’s inscription reads: "Cast from shackles..., this bell shall ring out hope ...and victory over mental illness."

Today the eight local MHA affiliates in Virginia have the flexibility to craft services to address needs in their own communities. As the state affiliate, Mental Health America of Virginia provides recovery support for adults who have experienced a mental health crisis, public awareness to break stigma, and advocacy for access to a continuum of mental health services statewide.

MHAV’s recovery services include information and referral, a peer-run Warm Line for non-judgmental listening and support, and recovery education trainings in different regions of the state facilitated by Certified Peer Recovery Specialists. These support services are provided at no charge to those who need them. Information is on the website The Warm Line number: 1-866-MHAV (6428).

To celebrate our 80 year history and ongoing public service, MHAV is sponsoring “Saved by the Bell,” a special dinner program from 6:00 to 8:30 pm on September 23 at the Hilton Richmond/Short Pump. The featured speaker will be Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of national Mental Health America, and author of "Losing Tim: How our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia." 

The evening begins at 6:00 with jazz, refreshments, historical and interactive displays. Two statewide mental health advocates will be honored with transformational leadership awards: Bonnie Neighbour, recently retired Executive Director of VOCAL, and Mira Signer, Executive Director of NAMI Virginia from 2007 to 2017.

If you were ever involved with MHA or a local affiliate, or you have historical information that may be of interest, we would like to hear from you. For more information about MHAV services or the 80th Anniversary event, please contact Bruce Cruser, Executive Director, at [email protected] or (804) 257-5591 ext. 102.

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