Attitudes About Mental Illness in the 1950s

I am trying to understand what it was like in the 1950s for families who had severely mentally ill members to take care of. My family was among that number. I can speak for my own experience as a younger sibling, as my older brother Michael, was very low functioning, autistic and nonverbal. He was and currently is unable to care for himself. I have a child’s-eye view of that time. My only first-hand knowledge of my parents’ difficulties was what we all went through: chaotic times trying to interact with Mike. I have no idea what they went through dealing with the mental health support system.

Public attitudes

The public in general feared and rejected people with mental illnesses in the 1950s. They considered the mentally ill as people who were psychotic. Incidentally, the mental health module of the 1996 General Social Survey, revealed that more people considered mentally ill people violent or frightening in 1996 than in 1950, according to Phelan, et al. [1] “We discuss the possibility that there has been a real move toward acceptance of many forms of mental illness as something that can happen to one of “us,” but that people with psychosis remain a “them ” who are more feared than they were half a century ago.” [2]

Continuum of attitudes

The Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation published a report in 1977: Mental Retardation: Past and Present. Introductory remarks reviewed the changing public attitudes toward the mentally retarded from the 1850s to the 1950s. “We can trace the process by which the first humanitarian efforts of 1850 to educate the ‘poor idiot’ and make him socially competent were transformed by 1915 into deliberate programs to ‘identify, segregate, and sterilize every feebleminded person as a menace to social decency and racial purity: to the end that they shall not reproduce their kind.’ This language was typical of the statutory provisions for the control of feeblemindedness in many States well into the 1950’s, elements of which still persist in some statutes today [1977].” [3]

Parents get involved

The National Association for Retarded Citizens was established in 1950, originally as National Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children. They summarize the lack of attention given to low functioning (retarded in the parlance of the 1950s) citizens at that time: “Several factors appear responsible for the establishment of this organization: (1) widespread exclusion from school of children with IQ’s below 50; (2) an acute lack of community services for retarded persons; (3) long waiting lists for admission to residential institutions; (4) parental dissatisfaction with the conditions in many state institutions; (5) the vision of leaders who believed that mutual assistance could bring major benefits in public relations, exchange of information and political actions, and (6) the assistance of a few key professionals.” [4]

The fact that my parents helped to start the Forum School with other parents for my brother and other like him tells me that they were not satisfied with the meager assistance that was available back then. I am very proud of the fact that they did all they could for Mike. The Forum School, established in 1954 is still active to this day.

[1] Phelan, J.C. et. al Public Conceptions of Mental Illness in 1950 and 1996: What Is Mental Illness and Is It to be Feared? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 41, No. 2. (Jun., 2000), pp. 188-207.

[2] Ibid pg 188

[3] Califano, J. et al. Mental Retardation: Past and Present. President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, January 1977 Washington, D.C. 20201

4 thoughts on “Attitudes About Mental Illness in the 1950s

  1. I can only imagine how parents of affected children lived from day to day, with seemingly no where to turn. I imagine many had to “sacrifice” their child to an institution, just to keep their sanity and keep their family together. I have a friend whose sibling was institutionalized, and she was never able to have any sort of relationship with them. She states she is not even allowed now to connect with them. I hope that our society is making progress, but people are still ignorant and afraid.

    • Yes, it is a heartbreaking choice. To make matters worse, many institutions were overcrowded back then, there were waiting lists years long, and abuse was rampant. As you said, many parents were desperate for alternatives. Community-based group homes are a step in the right direction, but far from a panacea.

      Thanks for your comment.


    • Thank you Jim. I will check it out with caution. I have read Madness on the Couch, an indictment of the practice of psychiatry in many ways. (I may have mentioned it in the post, but I don’t remember.)
      I’m thinking there will be many discussions about madness in the coming years. I hope we all survive.
      Thanks for the info, and the comment!

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