Clifford W. Beers - His Legacy
It is hard to imagine a more fitting namesake for our Clinic than Clifford Whittingham Beers. He was a remarkable man whose courage and compassion lifted him from the throes of mental illness to a place of honor as the founder of the mental health movement in America.
The indomitable spirit of Clifford Beers is his legacy and our charge.
The story of Beers’ life is so extraordinary that his acclaimed autobiography reads more like fiction than an honest, lucid account of reality. A Mind That Found Itself, first published in 1908, traces this New Haven native from the privileged life of a Yale-educated gentleman to the inhumane deprivations of a turn-of-the-century insane asylum inmate to the stature of mental health crusader.
Beers tells his story with brutal honesty. If he hadn’t, his book could not have so effectively changed the public perception of the mentally ill. The book makes no attempt to hide Beers’ mental illness. That would be hard to do, of course, since his commitment to a mental hospital in 1900 was prompted by a leap from a fourth-floor window in a failed suicide attempt.
Beers recounts in remarkable detail the “798 days of depression” that followed. He imagined his attempt at suicide to be a crime for which he would soon be arrested. He became convinced that his attendants and fellow patients were part of a conspiracy to gather evidence against him. He even believed his own brother to be an imposter.
A Mind That Found Itself is brutal in its vivid description of the abuse he and his fellow patients suffered in the violent ward of a state institution. He was forced to sleep in a straitjacket tightened to the point of cutting off the circulation in his hands. He spent days in a bare, unheated cell clothed only in his underwear. He witnessed the beating of patients “so far out of their minds they could not comprehend or obey orders.”
A pen rather than a lance has been my weapon of offence and defense; for with its point I have felt sure that I should one day prick the civic conscience into a compassionate activity and thus bring into a neglected field earnest men and women who should act as champions for those afflicted thousands least able to fight for themselves.
— Clifford Whittingham Beers
A Mind That Found Itself, 1907
Beers admits he provoked much of his harsh treatment, due partly to the disorder of his mind and partly to documenting first-hand the institution’s abuses.
He was depressed and nearly mute for the first two of his three years in mental hospitals. In the last year, he was in “an excited state” with delusions of grandeur that caused him to challenge his doctors and attendants and promise that he would one day expose their abuses to that world.
That is exactly what he did with A Mind That Found Itself. The book brought him considerable recognition which he used to raise money and establish the Connecticut Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1908 and its national counterpart the following year. The Clifford Beers Clinic, established in 1913, is one of the oldest outpatient community based mental health clinics in the United States.
Beers calls his book “the history of a mental civil war which I fought single-handed on a battlefield that lay within the compass of my skull.” This struggle was both his burden and the source of his greatness. The way he transformed his misfortune into a tool to better the world is his legacy and our charge.