How We Began
Many who today work in or receive services from the community mental health/mental retardation system are not aware that prior to the mid-1960s, services for individuals with serious mental illness or mental retardation were not available in the community. Families of these individuals were advised to send them away to institutions. Many of them remained there for the rest of their lives.
The Community Mental Health Act was passed in 1963 and signed by President Kennedy. Its purpose was to develop and provide in-community alternatives to institutionalization, especially in poverty-stricken areas. It was funded in 1965. The Act divided targeted service areas into geographical “catchment areas”. Philadelphia had 13 of these. Organizations that received funding were required to provide specific services (emergency care, outpatient counseling, case management, partial hospitalization, consultation and education, and research and evaluation). Mental retardation services and services for children were added to the list shortly afterwards. It also required that organizations which received funding have an elected community advisory board.
In Philadelphia most of the original federal staffing grants went to the large university-affiliated hospitals. It was not until 1969 that the first meeting of citizens and community leaders was called to enable the development of services for catchment area 5B, which encompassed all of Kensington and parts of eastern North Philadelphia, Port Richmond, Fishtown, and Juniata Park. In 1970 these meetings moved to the cafeteria of Episcopal Hospital and began a process to “catch up” to other parts of the city.
The community leaders, citizens, and family members who participated in these meetings would become the core of an advisory board for a new center with the goal of making the new program a freestanding (rather than hospital-based) center. In 1971, Episcopal established the first component required for a community MH/MR center, a Base Service Unit to track clients in the community and state institutions. In 1972, elections were held for the advisory board. In 1974, a new non profit corporation was established and named Community Organization for Mental Health and Retardation, CO-MHAR, Inc. In January 1975, Episcopal received a small staffing grant to expand the BSU to a full Community MH/MR Center. This grant was then transferred to the new corporation and COMHAR became a free standing center with a community governing board. Some of the members of that first group of concerned and committed citizens and family members continue to be involved members of our volunteer Board of Directors today, 35 years later.