The treatment of mental illness has changed substantially over the past several decades. It was only a couple generations ago that individuals with chronic mental illness were locked away in what were politely called asylums (and impolitely called much worse).

Despite the best of intentions, treatment in these institutions often focused on merely keeping individuals in a safe environment (and away from society) and medicating them, often heavily.

In the early 20th century, treatment for mental illness did not focus on recovery. At that time, many people simply did not know, or believe, that individuals with chronic mental illness could recover, or that living in a noninstitutional community setting would be possible or in their best interest.

Further, the idea that counseling – or “talk therapy” – could be beneficial to individuals with mental illness was not widely understood, and in fact, only became recognized as a useful type of therapy in the 1960s with the development of cognitive behavioral therapy.

One of the leading types of cognitive behavioral therapy is called rational behavior therapy, which continues to be used today, including by clinicians at Highland Rivers Health. RBT was developed in the 1970s by Maxie Maultsby, Jr., MD, at the University of Wisconsin and University of Kentucky. He was later named a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and passed away only recently, in 2016 at age 84.

I wanted to mention Dr. Maultsby not only because he was an innovator and pioneer in the treatment of mental health disorders, but also because he was African American. The fact is, the history of mental health scholarship and treatment is filled with Black doctors, professors and researchers whose work helped elevate the understanding of treatment of mental health disorders in African Americans, but was also frequently applicable to mental health treatment for everyone.

As we mark Black History Month in February, I wanted to recognize some of the Black pioneers in mental health.

♦ Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, (1897-1934) was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology. Prosser studied self-esteem in Black children who attended segregated schools and integrated schools, and made landmark contributions to the field of psychology.

♦ Herman George Canady, PhD, (1901-1970) studied racial bias in IQ testing and studied the self-concept of African Americans throughout his lifetime. Because of his work, he served as an expert witness for the NAACP in segregation and employment discrimination cases.

♦ Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, (1917-1983) was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, and studied the effects of discrimination and racial identity on the psychology of black Americans. Discoveries by her and her husband, Kenneth Clark, were used as testimony in the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case.

♦ Joseph L. White, PhD, (1932-2017) was known as the godfather of black psychology. He argued that mainstream psychology developed by and for white people did not apply to the African American experience and was, in fact, discriminatory against African American patients.

♦ Solomon Fuller, MD, (1872-1953) was the first African American psychiatrist to be recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. He studied neurodegenerative diseases including schizophrenia and manic depression, and made groundbreaking discoveries about how Alzheimer’s physically changes the brain.

While these are only a few of the African American pioneers in the mental health field, their work has not only contributed to understanding mental health disorders in African Americans, but also the experience of African Americans in our culture. Equally important, their work has given all of us a better understanding of the human mind and how mental health conditions can be treated so that individuals can live a life in recovery.

(Sources: Mental Health America,,, American Psychological Association)

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in Northwest Georgia.

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