America's Mental Health & Wellness Corridor
The National Park Service describes the Blackstone River Valley of Massachusetts and Rhode Island as the “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.” In the realm of mental health it can be argued that, historically speaking, the geographic area surrounding Worcester, Massachusetts – including the Upper Blackstone Valley – is America’s Mental Health and Wellness Corridor.
For nearly two hundred years, the Worcester area has been a center of national influence and innovation – the Cradle of America’s Mental Health and Wellness - and this continues today. All of the below milestones represent progress, in a relative sense. Any endeavor that seeks to improve the human condition is imperfect. At times, like with state mental hospitals, progress is accompanied by suffering, maltreatment, and loss. The National Museum of Mental Health Project, formed in Worcester County, draws inspiration from the successes and humility from any failures associated with this local history.
1816 - Dorothea Dix, living in Worcester as a teen, becomes an educator. By mid-century, Dix will travel thousands of miles investigating America’s treatment of those with mental illness and educating state legislatures, one-at-a-time, about this poor treatment - and aggressively lobbying for change. The development of over 32 state mental hospitals across the U.S. can be attributed to these efforts
1830 - The institution that would become Worcester State Hospital, one of the first state mental hospitals in the country, is founded. Society’s promise of better treatment for the mentally ill is made manifest, even if gravely imperfect.
20th Century (1st Half)
1909 - Clark University in Worcester hosts Sigmund Freud for what will be the only American lectures ever provided by the “father of psychoanalysis” whose ideas and terminology will form much of the lexicon of psychology and mental health. A century before social media, attendees at the conference come from all over the country (and world), and return home helping these ideas “go viral” in an early 20th Century way.
20th Century (2nd Half) & 21st Century
1976 – Amidst the great social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, and decades before star athletes and corporate leaders began to speak openly about their use of meditation, the Insight Meditation Society is founded in Barre, Massachusetts. IMS goes on to become one of the country’s most prominent and influential centers for learning and practice of meditation, a cornerstone of the modern wellness movement.
1979 – In an era when few had heard of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester launches the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program which is in use at over 700 medical centers and clinics today. One of the earliest household names in the realm of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s impact has been recognized from medical journals to popular coffee table literature such as Parade magazine.
1996 – Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), partners with Assumption University of Worcester to form the Aaron T. Beck Institute for Cognitive Studies. In the closing decades of the 20th Century and continuing through today the theories of Dr. Beck, of the University of Pennsylvania, and daughter/collaborator Dr. Judith Beck reshape the lexicon and practice of mental health therapy in the United States in same manner Freud’s psychotherapy did in the early 1900s. Assumption’s CBT program is the first to be named after Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who for a number of years visited the campus annually to present an award to recognize the contributions of some pioneers in the expansion of CBT.
1963 (we saved the smiles for last!) - Long before the term emoji, and during a period of low employee morale, State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester hires Worcester designer Harvey Ball to develop an image that can be posted in the workplace to lift spirits. The smiley face is born. State Mutual, now known as Hanover Insurance, goes on to decades of success. The smiley face, unprotected by copyright, sets off a chain reaction of positive emotions and imitators – a “domino effect of smiles” (Alexandra Orlandi) worldwide that continues to this day.
Image courtesy of Unired States National Park Service - Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park
Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society; T. Moore's Lithography
Freud, G. Stanley Hall, and Carl Jung - Image courtesy Clark University
Aaron T. Beck portrait donated by Beck to Assumption University
- image courtesy of Aaron T. Beck Institute for Cognitive Studies.
Insight Meditation Society Retreat Center -, Image courtesy IMS
Note: The National Museum of Mental Health Project is not a history museum. The above is a description of the local history from which we source inspiration. To the extent any inaccuracies exist above relative to historical dates, etc. we invite you to report them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.