New York State has for more than one hundred years been a pioneer in the development of mental health treatment and research. Although it was not the first state to construct state-supported institutions specifically for the mentally ill, it was the first completely to relieve county and city governments of the burden of caring for their mentally ill inhabitants; the 1890 State Care Act, which placed all responsibility for the care and treatment of those suffering from mental disorders in the hands of state government, was emulated by a number of other states in subsequent years. The landmark 1954 Community Mental Health Services Act (CMHSA), which was born of the state's desire to divest itself of some of this responsibility, and policymakers' subsequent efforts to compel localities to improve care and to insure that the needs of the seriously mentally ill were being met also anticipated developments in other states and at the federal level.
The reasons for the state's consistent willingness to embrace innovation are obscure, but they may stem in part from the state's large size and, in the New York City metropolitan area, population density. Gerald Grob, the leading historian of mental health policy in the United States, asserts that the development of state mental institutions was but one of many responses to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, which rendered ineffective the personal relationships and local social institutions that had during the nation's agrarian past cared for the needy. New York State was among the first states to experience these sweeping changes, and as a result the need to devise effective responses to them arose sooner than it did elsewhere. In addition, New York State's demographic characteristics may have exacerbated the problems arising from past policy decisions; for example, policymakers' support for community-based mental health programs was in large part rooted in their awareness that New York State had the largest number of institutionalized people in the nation and fear that state hospital populations and costs would continue swelling.
New York State has also been unusually rich in the cultural resources and political will needed to develop and implement bold reforms. Grob notes that most nineteenth-century efforts to alter American mental health policy originated in the populous Northeast, which dominated the nation's cultural and intellectual life. Although New York State does not seem to have had a nineteenth-century agitator as prominent as Dorothea Dix, the Massachusetts activist who fought to compel state governments to assume responsibility for the care of the mentally ill, it has had more than its share of individuals and organizations dedicated to improving the care of the mentally ill. A number of important national advocacy organizations such as the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (a forerunner of the National Association for Mental Health) were headquartered in New York City and were thus well placed to influence state policy decisions. In addition, New York State has long been known as a laboratory of political reform. Mental-health advocacy groups working in the state have consistently found governors and state legislators to be far more receptive to change than their counterparts in many other parts of the United States. However, the state's politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere, have seldom been motivated solely by the desire to do good. Advocates of change have consistently been most successful when they have been able simultaneously to appeal to lawmakers' altruism, fiscal conservatism, and yearning for efficient solutions to bedeviling social problems; for example, the postwar push for community-based treatment and preventative care won adherents because it held out the promise of simultaneously slashing expenditures and reducing human suffering.
The report that follows presents an overview of the complex and often tense relationships that existed between and within the mental health professions, voluntary agencies and political activists, and state and federal politicians. It does not pretend to be definitive, and it deliberately avoids two powerful historiographical traditions that guide many studies of mental health treatment and policy. The first of these traditions, which began taking shape in the late nineteenth century and came of age in the 1940's and 1950's, asserts that state mental institutions are miserable warrens of neglect and suffering. The second, which emerged in the 1960's and continues to inform the arguments of many historians and sociologists, views mental institutions and the very concept of mental illness as means of controlling those who refuse to accept the mental and moral discipline of modern civilization. It seeks primarily to identify the individuals and organizations that shaped mental health policy in New York State, to assess how they interpreted the problems that confronted them, to uncover the mechanisms through which policy was implemented, and, in instances in which policy decisions were particularly ill-informed or inappropriate, to point out these failures. Important as they are, questions of whether state mental hospitals were (or are) inherently bad and whether policymakers were (or are) consciously or unconsciously trying to shore up the social order are in many respects tangential to this endeavor.