President John F. Kennedy ensured that his time in the White House included mental health care reform and an emphasis on rights and resources for the developmentally disabled community. He formed committees, raised awareness and passed laws on rights specifically for these populations. At the time, the proper verbiage to describe individuals with developmental disabilities was “mentally retarded.” President Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act on October 31, 1963, which paved the way for current mental health facilities and approaches to treatment and care for the mentally ill and disabled.
President Kennedy’s passion for the developmentally disabled community came from personal experience with his sister Rosemary’s health issues. Rosemary was only one year younger than President Kennedy and spent most of her life in a special needs facility. This inspired President Kennedy to add the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act and to establish the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, promoting research on the relationship between prenatal care, maternal health and child development with regard to intellectual disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was an active voice on these issues during her brother’s time in office, later founding the Special Olympics in 1968.
In a message to Congress on February 5, 1963, President Kennedy stated, “Mental retardation ranks with mental health as a major health, social and economic problem in this country. It strikes our most precious asset, our children.” Later that year, he signed the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 into law, which authorized federal funds for the construction of facilities for individuals with mental health disorders or intellectual disabilities. The act also aimed to increase research on causes of these health issues, improve emergency care and include therapy and treatment in lieu of purely custodial institutions to house the mentally disabled.
The Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 is credited with beginning the process of reducing the strong stigma attached to mental health. This increased treatment options for mental health disorders to include inpatient, outpatient and partial hospitalization, while putting an emphasis on special education for developmentally disabled children. Upon signing the act, President Kennedy made a statement to officials in the Cabinet Room of the White House, stating, “The nation owes a debt of gratitude to all who have made this legislation possible… The mentally ill and the mentally retarded need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”
President Kennedy helped change the way the public views mental illness and developmental disabilities. This paved the way for later research and treatment for substance abuse and addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with a non-violent drug-related offense, Sovereign Court Services will advocate for your right to addiction or dual diagnosis treatment instead of jail time. Call 866-439-7698 to be connected with an advocate today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer