For all of the lighthearted and often downright frivolous material that appeared in LIFE through the years — and there was, thank goodness, a lot of lighthearted, frivolous reporting and photography in most every issue — the magazine was always at its best when addressing, head-on, the thorniest, most resonant issues of the day. That coverage included features on the era-defining people and events for which LIFE, all these decades later, is most clearly remembered (World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, Vietnam and, of course, pop culture legends like Marilyn, JFK and Liz Taylor), as well as other topics that the magazine tackled because, quite simply, they mattered.
The magazine’s archives are filled with countless stories and photo essays that, at the time they were reported, helped drive (if only for a while) the national conversation around explosive and frequently under-reported issues. LIFE covered the post-war rise of the Klan; the struggles of returning WWII veterans; the quiet heroics of a midwife in the rural South; and other stories that most publications then and now simply lack the resources to fully investigate.
In this vein, less than two years after its premier issue, LIFE confronted its readers with a devastating photo essay on an issue that has bedeviled humanity for, quite literally, millennia: how to treat those among us who suffer from debilitating, and often frightening, mental disorders.