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Remarks on Proposed Measures To Combat Mental Illness and Mental Retardation.

February 05, 1963

I HAVE sent to the Congress today a series of proposals to help fight mental illness and mental retardation. These two afflictions have been long neglected. They occur more frequently, affect more people, require more prolonged treatment, cause more individual and family suffering than any other condition in American life.

It has been tolerated too long. It has troubled our national conscience, but only as a problem unpleasant to mention, easy to postpone, and despairing of solution. The time has come for a great national effort. New medical, scientific, and social tools and insights are now available.

With respect to mental illness, our chief aim is to get people out of State custodial institutions and back into their communities and homes, without hardship or danger. Today nearly one-fifth of the 279 State mental institutions are fire and health hazards.

Three-fourths of them were opened before World War II. Nearly half of the 530,000 persons in our State mental hospitals are in institutions with over 3,000 patients getting little or no individual treatment. Many of these institutions have less than half of the professional staff required.

Forty-five percent of them have been hospitalized for 10 years or more. If we launch a broad, new mental health program now, it will be possible within a decade or two to reduce the number of patients now under custodial care by 50 percent or more.

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. It disables 10 times as many people as diabetes, 20 times as many as tuberculosis, and 600 times as many as infantile paralysis.

There are between 5 and 6 million mentally retarded children and adults, an estimated 3 percent of our population, much too high for a country of our resources and wealth. There are many causes, many of them still unknown, but I think that statistics already point to a direct relationship between lack of prenatal care and mental retardation.

Primarily for lack of funds, between 20 and 60 percent of the mothers receiving care in public hospitals in some large cities receive inadequate or no prenatal care and mental retardation is more prevalent in these areas. I am recommending a new, 5-year program of assistance to States and local health departments to develop comprehensive maternity and child health care programs serving primarily families who are otherwise unable to pay for needed medical care.

We, as a nation, have neglected too long the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. It affects all of us and it affects us as a country. I am hopeful that beginning today this country will move with a great national effort in this field so vital to the welfare of our citizens.

Thank you.

Note: The President's remarks were recorded, for later broadcast, before a group of newspaper reporters in the Fish Room at the White House.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks on Proposed Measures To Combat Mental Illness and Mental Retardation. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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