All Eyes on the Senate

SB 2680, Stigma and the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016

In my experience, it seems like people who are living with mental illness are the black cats of society ─ they’ve been hexed, cursed and abandoned.

In fact, we don’t even talk about it because it’s taboo. It shouldn’t be this way. It’s not as though they’re asking for preferential treatment, but more so just a level playing field. They’re asking for their God-given human rights.

The social aspect of living with a mental illness and the label that comes with it in our society is forever challenging. This is where stigma rears its angry head. It’s almost like a force in the universe. You hear rumors about someone and it usually involves words like ‘meltdown’ or ‘bat shit crazy’ or ‘psycho.’ If I stood before a hundred people and asked them if they’d ever said such a thing, eighty would raise their hands, nineteen would be liars and one guy would be asleep, (always). I’m guilty of it too. Though I’ve stuck up for people sometimes, I’m sure I said some awful things, even if it were in jest.

Truth be told, we’re all guilty of stigma, and not just towards those living with mental illness. We stigmatize people based on their race, national origin, reasons like previous incarceration, weight control, addiction issues, poverty, people who didn’t attend college ─ it’s a lengthy list. But that doesn’t make any of it okay.

One of the more prevalent factors in suicidal ideation is from stigma. It’s the way we treat those who are different from the general population and it’s making them more sick than they already are. The way we talk about them, joke about them and ultimately disenfranchise and discriminate against them. You find someone on the Golden Gate Bridge, so sick that they don’t even know how to get help anymore, and you’re in your car yelling from the window, “Get it over with, asshole! I’m late for work!” Thankfully though, you’re not that person, because you have more empathy and compassion than that and you’re going to try to help them. Then, you’re on the nightly news and you can’t buy a drink anywhere in town. You’re a hero!

One of the more unfair parts of these diseases is that often, these are the people who bring us so much culture ─ in art, literature, music, entertainment and more, and we shame them. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because we associate mental illness with being stupid? Or because we take them for granted? While they’re racking up years of experience managing their illnesses, the recoveries, the coping skills, fighting stigma and the ignorance that persists — while they’re doing all that — we’re telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, and what they should be doing instead. Because that would make our lives more manageable; if they could just snap out of it and be more like us.

It’s a shame that we’re living in a time when a bakery’s choice of clientele ─ or who can marry who ─ takes precedent over the human rights of people living with a disease in their brain. This isn’t to say that gay rights aren’t important, after all they are rights. But how is that issue more important than one that involves people suffering and dying every day at an average rate of twenty-five years younger than the general population? Diseases so strong and unpredictable that the symptoms can often force victims into trying to kill themselves in order to end the pain. These are matters of life or death, not sexual preference.

It’s a shame that we’re living in a time when our prisons and streets are flooded with people who are living with mental illnesses while we all become political experts in our respective social medias. We’ll proudly share some inaccurate propaganda, complete with a fearful picture on the internet, but we’ll trip over a homeless person and scream “get a job!” We’ll spend days heckling and denouncing an NFL third-stringer for not standing for the National Anthem when we could have been discussing more important matters like socio-economics, poverty and family values. Sure, he sparked a conversation . . . about what? All anyone is doing is slinging mud and not making any ground. It’s a shame.

It’s a shame that in the hallowed halls of Congress ─ where everyone is referred to as The Honorable ─ that there is finally a piece of legislation that has the potential to change the lives of millions of people and the lives of their families, only to have it butchered into something that doesn’t even resemble the original bill and will most likely remain stymied in the senate, keeping it from being signed into law.

Incidentally, the Murphy Bill, as it has come to be known — named after Congressman Tim Murphy (R, PA-18) — has passed overwhelmingly in the House. Many are hoping it will make it to the President’s desk to be signed into law. But who has read it since it’s language has been loosened? Do those with lived experience still have a voice? Are their human rights being violated? According to Mr. Murphy, it’s “an attempt to repair a severely flawed system.” However, many advocates including myself think otherwise. This bill will give power to the wrong people, limit the voices of those with lived experience almost entirely and promote forced outpatient treatment that has been proven ineffective.

In a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1975, O’Connor v. Donaldson, it was ruled that “a state cannot constitutionally confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.” Seems like a huge leap forward in the body of mental health law jurisprudence, doesn’t it? Maybe in theory. But considering all the components that go into judicial and legislative decisions, the stigma and prejudices surrounding mental illness still can and do infect and distort the protection of due process.

It may be invisible, but if you pay close enough attention, it’s there and it’s happening. It’s one thing for an expert witness to lie under oath in a malpractice trial of a prominent physician, it’s another to distort the truth when a person living with a mental illness is being examined. The stigma has already got them framed.

Mental illness has impacted nearly every area of our daily lives ─ from our schools, our communities, our veterans, prisons and the economy. Speaking of the economy, let’s put something into perspective. After drawing a comparison between gay marriage and mental illness, I’m sure I raised a few eyebrows ─ that was not my intention. However, think about this: the right to gay marriage is both a pragmatic and moral victory, I understand. It’s a decision for same sex couples to have the opportunity to live like everyone else — what a novel idea. And it will likely have an economic impact of over $2.5 Billion annually.

Now consider this: the proper mental illness reform, with something other than the Murphy Bill spearheading this long awaited endeavor will first and foremost, save lives. Not to mention that mental illness currently has a negative economic impact of over $200 Billion annually. Do you see the difference? In addition, the issue keeps getting kicked down the road and when legislation is finally presented, it’s dismantled, not sustainable and infringes on the rights of its citizens. And the American public is either completely unaware or it just doesn’t concern them.

Right now, in this political era, we are experiencing a reawakening regarding the debates over civil and human rights. And while the sophistication of today’s analytics and technologies were never thought possible, the call to action is now.

Maybe the actions of a few could inspire the actions of many.

Please join me in meeting, contacting or calling members of the United States Senate — before Labor Day — to Support Senate Bill 2680 — without Amendments from HR 2646. Please follow the link for the complete instructions — it can be as simple as an email. Together we can influence Congress to do their due diligence. To pass a landmark, ethically sound, bipartisan bill and have it signed into law.

It was said by Mark Twain that “the two most important days in your life are the day you’re born, and the day you find out why.” If the record states that today is my day of reckoning, then I will always remember its significance. Thank you for reading.