Why It's Important to Document Mental Health
The story of mental health in New York State is a compelling and critical part of our history as New Yorkers, but significant elements of that history are in danger of being lost. We have very limited information about the lives and perspectives of people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions or their families; the social workers, medical personnel, and support staff, who provide services and assistance; the state, local, private and community institutions and organizations run by professional, non-professional, and recipient-controlled groups; the range of research and treatment philosophies and approaches; and policy and legislation.
Significant developments happened in New York during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but critical developments also followed World War II and continue today. Changes in scientific and popular perceptions of mental health have merged with the economic and political forces of each period to shape mental health policy and legislation, diagnosis and treatment, and the nature of care, whether through large, state-operated institutions or community support groups. Central to this process during the 20th century has been the development of the mental health professions and the emergence of both a mental health advocacy movement and a mental health consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. The history of mental health is filled with stories that range from high ideals, visionary leadership, dedicated service, determined advocacy and activism, and courageous recovery to political cynicism, economic expediency, prejudice and stigma, neglect and abuse, and appalling suffering. All of this is part of the history we need to ensure survives.
People diagnosed or identified as mentally ill have been subjected to prejudice and discrimination in this country throughout our history. This prejudice has been reflected in the language used to identify both the phenomena and the people; even terms initially considered neutral or technical tend to become tainted and therefore pejorative. To combat prejudice and discrimination, people and groups, especially the recipients of mental health services, are continually searching for and adopting terms intended to restore dignity and respect to the language used in the area of mental health. At this time, there is no standard nomenclature. Terms are used interchangeably in this plan, reflecting a range of people whose perspectives and experiences are important to include in the documentary record of mental health in New York.
State agencies and private institutions that provide mental health services operate under strict legal and ethical codes to protect the privacy of individuals who have psychiatric histories or have official interaction with mental health service providers. The intent of this project is to make available the historical record of mental health as a vital part of New York's history while maintaining strict adherence to the law and to ethical principles regarding privacy. It is imperative that repositories or other organizations that hold mental health records be aware of and adhere to these legal and ethical codes. For more information about policies and procedures related to privacy and the confidentiality of records, the following resources are available:
- "Your Right to Know: New York States Open Government Laws," a booklet published by the New York Department of State and available by calling (518) 474-2518 or on the Web at www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/rt2know.html.