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Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed his final piece of legislation – the Community Mental Health Act. Its purpose was to build mental health centers accessible to men, women and children so that those with mental illnesses could be treated while working and living at home, rather than being kept in neglectful and often abusive state institutions. 

Following Kennedy’s death, only half of the proposed community mental health centers were ever built, and those were never fully funded.

In October, Patrick Kennedy organized The Kennedy Forum, designed to honor his uncle’s wishes by categorizing the progress that has been made in the field of mental health and disabilities, and calling upon today’s leaders to provide better care for millions.

University of Delaware faculty member Steven M. Eidelman, H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership, was invited to speak during the plenary panel, examining how President Kennedy’s initiative helped serve people with mental disabilities and how the “lessons learned” can be applied to future efforts. 

Held on Oct. 23-24 in Boston, the forum attracted more than 550 researchers, advocates, policymakers, pharmaceutical companies, state governments and service providers to advance the quality of services and supports offered to people with serious mental illness in the U.S.

“It was an honor to present the opening session with David Gergen of CNN, Joe Shapiro of NPR, Herbert Pardes of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Howard Goldman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine,” Eidelman said. “We highlighted developments since President Kennedy’s message to Congress in 1963 and examined the trends and major issues facing the field.” 

Eidelman has been an adviser to the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, endowed by President Kennedy’s parents, since the early 1990s and helped plan the forum with Patrick Kennedy.  

Conference presentations were moderated by Chris Matthews and Patrick Kennedy. Vice President Joseph Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius were guest speakers.

Breakout sessions covered a wide range of topics, including: advances in mental health research and treatment; community approaches to mental and substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities; employment for individuals with mental and developmental disability and productivity in the workplace; and improvements in treatment of mental health, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use disorders from the Affordable Care Act and Mental Health Parity Act.

Follow-up activities will focus on the integration of research, practice, services and policy advocacy.

Article by Lily Newton

This article appeared in UDaily on November 21, 2013.