During World War II, future leaders of the National Mental Health Association worked in state mental hospitals. There, they witnessed the deplorable and inhumane treatment of patients with mental illnesses who were chained by their wrists and ankles to the hospital walls. This experience inspired the men to devote their time to improving the lives of all those who suffer from mental illnesses, and changing the way America thinks about persons with mental illnesses. They believed with better understanding and treatments, the cruel practice of using shackles and chains to restrain people with mental illness would eventually stop.
In 1950, the National Mental Health Association chose a bell as their symbol. Two years later, Mental Health America issued a call to asylums across the country for their discarded chains and shackles. Volunteers at the Mental Health Association’s National Headquarters in New York collected the metal restraints from hundreds of mental hospitals across the country and piled them in the building’s lobby. These restraints were then shipped to the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland, where on April 13, 1956 they were dropped into a crucible and cast into a 300-pound bell. Nothing could proclaim hope for those who have mental illness more dramatically than a bell cast from the actual chains and shackles used as restraints for persons with mental illnesses.
To many, a bell symbolizes freedom and liberty for the 40 million Americans affected by mental illnesses. The bell serves as a powerful reminder that the invisible chains of misunderstanding and discrimination continue to bind people with mental illnesses.
Over the years, national mental health leaders and other prominent individuals have rung the Bell to mark the continued progress in the fight for victory over mental illnesses.
Today the Mental Health Bell stands as a national symbol for the mental health movement.
The Bell is displayed at the NMHA’s Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.