Ring Them Bells: Behind the Symbol of Mental Health

by Jen Rose, Assistant Conference Coordinator | MHASF

If it’s a clang, a gong, or a simple low-key chime, have you ever noticed that one way or another the tolling of a bell is a fixture in daily human events? The sound and vibration carries meaning and harkens for an awaited change. 

For thousands of years, humans have used bells to invoke collective memory, rituals, or a call to daily prayer. Meant to beckon from beyond the visible realm, a bell calls us toward healing and divinity. 

In Buddhist temples, the vibrations of a bell are thought to awaken the sleeping soul. To Hindus, ringing bells create an aura that calms the mind and cleanses the sins of humans’ hundred lives. On another continent—Suffolk County, England, specifically—it takes five bell ringers pulling on massive ropes to call their congregation to services.

The Mental Health Bell

One exception is the Mental Health Bell. In this case, it’s not the ringing itself, but how the bell was created which bears most significance.  

In 1953, Clifford Beers, one of the founders of the mental health recovery movement, along with Mental Health America melted down chains and shackles used to restrain people in asylums. As a call for liberation from physical restraints, they cast these metals into a single bell that still today tolls for the struggle to free ourselves from the spiritual shackles of stigma and social alienation. 

Liberating Peers Everywhere

With this act, the pioneers in mental health recovery literally transmuted confinement and abuse into liberation. In spite of advice from his fellows, Beers thought they would dispel the fog of secrecy and shame around mental health challenges by fighting out in the open for the humanity of mental health patients—a fight that continues to this day.

And now more than 100 years later, the Mental Health Bell is a powerfully symbolic reminder of how far we’ve come in our continued progress toward dignity, transparency, and recovery. I don’t know about you, but I’d be thrilled to hear the sound of that bell ringing. 


#fightintheopen  #mentalhealthamerica


“Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow/Ring them bells with an iron hand/So the people will know/Oh, it’s rush hour now/On the wheel and the plow/And the sun is going down upon that sacred cow.” —Ring Them Bells, by Bob Dylan




The traditional medical model of treatment is one of many modalities in addressing mental health. Whether this model works for you or not, MHASF wants to empower the San Francisco Mental Health Community. For the past 75 years, MHASF has been a driving force in opening up mental health recovery to peer-driven resources. In May 2022, MHASF hosted Intersecting Paths to Recovery: a Webinar on Holistic Healing. Participants practiced meditative, community-based, and trauma-informed recovery. We hope that MHASF can continue advocating for peers with lived experience to be in the driver’s seat of their own mental health journey. We know that with your help, we can do so for another 75 years and more. Please visit our donation page, and consider giving a gift to sustain the future of peer-driven mental health for all.

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