Letter from MHP founders

Letter from MHP founders

The Mental Hygiene Program of the CPS, founded in May 1944, owed its existence to the efforts of Harold Barton, Leonard Edelstein, Willard Hetzel, and Philip Steer. The following is a letter taken in full from The Turning Point sent by these four men to the CPS units in mental hospitals in August 1945:


This is a confidential report. We want to describe to you as clearly as we can the strategy underlying our activities and our plan for future action. We have hesitated to circulate this information in the formative period of our program lest we inadvertently arouse distrust or misunderstanding among regular staff members in the institutions you are serving, and alienate those persons who are as anxious as we to accomplish the goals ahead. Now that...our objectives have been demonstrated by concrete projects, we can risk the chance of being misunderstood without fearing that the whole program will be jeopardized. Here is our proposal.

Rather than attempt exposés of individual institutions...we plan to disclose...the inherent weaknesses of all the facilities we are now serving. This disclosure will be made as soon as sufficient material is organized in such a manner that it will give an accurate representation of the conditions prevailing in these institutions, but not until after the war has been concluded. If we were to present any material to the public now, it could be misunderstood, or used to divert attention against us as COs rather than upon the institutional problems for which we are seeking relief and understanding. Some reactionaries might also rally to the overworked cliché, "this is the war--what else can you expect in times like these?"--when in reality the conditions which we wish to bring to light have become ingrained in the system. Realistically, at present we are unable to enlist the full support of the press, religious agencies, as well as veterans' organizations...

For now, we must gather as much in the way of firsthand information on institutional practices and needs to properly document our story when the time is at hand for its release. From each of you we need eye-witness accounts that will document the many ways in which these hospitals are being short-changed in the delivery of services for their proper care and treatment of patients. We are also eager to obtain information that will bring to light examples of institutional practices that are contributing in a positive way to the welfare of the patients in their care.

When the above information has been assembled and organized, it is our intent to present it to the public in such a manner as to protect the confidentiality of the institutions involved, as well as names of individuals related to these facilities...We want to tell the story of America's mental institutions as we have observed them, in as colorful and appealing a way as we can. In this context, we want to explain the underlying problems which are hampering their abilities to serve as hospitals in the true sense of that term. And we also plan to offer our recommendations for bringing about changes in public attitudes and commitments need to effect these changes.

The presentation of the above report to the nation would be accompanied by press releases and supported by reviews and commentaries from persons prominent in medicine, social welfare, religion, public affairs, and others in the public limelight. We would also solicit supporting statements for the work from members of our advisory board, attesting to the authenticity of the report's disclosures and recommendations.

It would be our hope that the report's publication might coincide as an integral feature of a newly established "National Mental Health Week," which also could serve as a springboard for a countrywide fund appeal. Release of the report also could serve to announce the formation of a new national citizens' organization as a successor to the Mental Hygiene Program. In many ways, this event might herald a new day for the mentally ill in much the same way the publication of Clifford Beers's classic, A Mind That Found Itself some 40 years earlier had led the way to the establishment of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene.

Once a permanent organization is in place with sufficient funds to facilitate the implementation of its goals we can proceed to move forward in improving conditions for the mentally ill. Among our more immediate goals would be the following:

Encourage college students to consider pursuing careers in the mental health professions such as psychiatry, psychology, social work, nursing, and occupational and recreational therapy.

Encourage students interested in pursuing careers in the social service arena to devote summer vacation periods to working in mental hospitals as attendants. Such experience would be highly useful to them as part of their basic training and provide a highly useful function for the institutions and their patients.

Develop plans that would enhance the skills of those attendants in mental hospitals in a manner that would enhance their work performance as well as their self-image as care-providers. Out of this thrust it would be hoped that a new professional status would emerge for hospital attendants.

This then, is our plan of action--and we have been given much encouragement to pursue it vigorously by our many friends from outside the CPS ranks. At present, there is no single national organization capable of speaking effectively on behalf of the disenfranchised mentally ill in our public institutions. You can help us in reaching this objective by sharing with us accounts of your own experiences that will enable us to tell the story of the CPS experience of our nation's mental health facilities in a manner that will arouse the public's concern and stimulate it to action. Demobilization is almost at hand. Please don't delay in letting us hear from you.

Obediently yours for the MHP,

Len, Will, Hal, and Phil


 From The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America's Mentally Ill. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1994. Pp 129-45.