We are the People

ocohenBy Oryx Cohen (Originally published here)

Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

With Pennsylvania Republican Representative Tim Murphy currently trying to push his Murphy Bill (HR 3717) through Congress, the battle is clearly on.

The so-called Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, or Murphy Bill HR 3717, is a misguided response to national tragedies; one that would set back proven, positive, recovery-oriented, community-based, peer-initiated mental health innovations by 40 or 50 years.   The bill is in direct conflict with the 2003 President’s New Freedom Commission recommendation to promote recovery and consumer involvement to help transform our broken mental health system.

While the bill purports to support the use of evidence-based practices, in actuality the legislation would effectively eliminate solidly evidence-based, voluntary, peer-run mental health services and family supports that have been successful and popular.

The Murphy Bill could also be in violation of the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, as it advocates returning to an era where people diagnosed with serious mental health conditions were institutionalized, sometimes for life, instead of living in the community. In fact, because Assisted Outpatient Commitment is central to the Murphy Bill, even those of us that currently live in the community could be subjected to forced treatment in our own homes.

Recent tragedies have lead many to push for a fear-driven approach to “mental health,” an approach based on the false assumption that because anyone who acts violently can potentially be described as “mentally ill,” anyone who can be described as mentally ill therefore can be assumed to be potentially violent.

Basically, those with mental health labels have been used as scapegoats while the real reasons for our national crises of pervasive violence and poverty continue to go unaddressed.   Despite this, and despite the fact that evidence suggests that people actually avoid treatment when it is forced upon them, the provisions of the Murphy Bill would exchange low-cost, community-based services with good outcomes for high-cost yet ineffective interventions.  The bill eliminates the Institution for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion, making it legal for psychiatric hospitals to be reimbursed through Medicaid, thus increasing rates of hospitalization.  If passed, the Murphy Bill could return our country to an unprecedented era of re-institutionalization which, based on current statistics on forced treatment, would likely affect those of low-income and people of color disproportionately.

As with other fear-based approaches, the Murphy Bill would eliminate human rights protections that Americans have worked for centuries to create.  Specifically, the Murphy Bill would dismantle the rights and protections currently outlined in the federally mandated Protection & Advocacy (P & A) System.  In addition, the bill aims to decrease SAMHSA funding for the consumer-run national Technical Assistance Centers and statewide consumer networking grants, effectively eliminating federal support for peer-run initiatives.

Murphy and his supporters are also targeting the national Alternatives conference.  Alternatives is now in its 29th year and is the largest national conference that is run by and for people with lived experience with mental health issues.  Besides featuring the leading mental health experts from around the world in a premiere learning environment, Alternatives celebrates how far we have come in this country, with very limited funding, in developing peer-initiated, recovery-based innovations that work.

Our critics say that we aren’t reaching those who are most in need, the most severely affected folks.  The people who attend Alternatives and who benefit from peer-run initiatives through the country tell a different story, though.  On a personal level, if it wasn’t for finding peer communities and peer support, I would likely still be in a hospital and would lead a much different life.  Instead, I am happy and healthy, married, a homeowner, and the proud father of two.

We are the people who have been written off, who have the most severe diagnoses, who have been in hospitals.  We are also the people who found our way to recovery, a life in the community, and are now reaching a hand out to others so they can do the same.

And now, we are in the fight of our lives.