Defeating Goliath: Mental Health is a Social Justice Issue, and People with Lived Experience and Their Allies are Rising Up

lharrisBy Leah Harris (Originally published here)

The political status quo cannot be trusted to fix a problem that they themselves created. Many politicians address the symptoms of our deeper problems, but it's time to address the disease itself: the system of legalized corruption that now threatens to replace the will of the people – intended by our Founders to be the true governing force in America -- with the will of a moneyed few. -- Marianne Williamson,
Marianne Williamson for Congress

Like many Americans, I have long been cynical about the political process in my country. I am well aware of the reasons that so many of us eschew engagement with government: the undue influence of moneyed interests in the dealings of Washington, the lying, the corruption, the stealing, the cover-ups, the bad behavior, the squabbling, the same tired old rhetoric, what seems to be an inability and unwillingness to address the root causes of the most serious social, economic, environmental, and political problems in our nation.

How could we not be cynical in that face of all that?

While I have lived just a few miles away from the Capitol for the last fifteen years, I have been unsure about getting involved in legislative advocacy. I’ve been intimidated by the complexity of the legislative process, and more inclined to leave it up to others who I perceive as having more experience than me. And honestly, I haven’t felt very hopeful about effecting change. My cynicism had turned to “learned helplessness,” a phenomenon which is discussed by Bruce Levine in his book Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting the Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite.

And then along came a mental health bill so destructive, so regressive, that I had to step out of my "uncomfortable comfort zone." As Bruce Levine points out in Get Up, Stand Up: “sometimes outrageous laws radicalize people.” This bill is the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013,” H.R. 3717, which I have written about in depth here, legislation introduced Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

For the first time in my life, I took a step beyond making a call or sending an email in response to an action alert – though those are great and important things to do in and of themselves. I made an appointment to visit with my Representative’s staff to educate them about the dangerous provisions in the bill, and joined with several allies from the disability rights and civil rights communities in my area. It wasn’t as intimidating as I feared; it was a conversation, and I felt empowered by contributing to it. So now I am asking everyone to consider taking their advocacy to the next level.

I feel that it’s vitally important that we engage with this process now, as a way to make significant social change and create social justice. According to Douglas J. Amy, professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College:

The problem with being too cynical about our public institutions is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you insist on believing that government is irredeemably terrible – it will be. Cynicism can all too easily lead to apathy and an unwillingness to participate in politics and government. Why bother to take part in a process you know is basically screwed up? Also, if you believe that all politicians are corrupt, you won’t work to elect those good candidates who are truly dedicated to public service – which only makes it easier for the bad candidates to win office. If you don’t work to make government more democratic and responsive to the public, it will remain in the hands of moneyed interests.

Bruce Levine offers a historical perspective in Get Up, Stand Up:

While a government that is truly of the people and by the people seems childishly naïve for millions of Americans, real-deal populists once believed it was not naïve. The people in the Populist Movement not only believed it, they seized government institutions for their use…This real-deal populism – the sense of ownership of government – has been replaced with a bastardized populism that makes government the enemy without recognition that it is control of the government by large corporations that is the underlying problem. If we are not controlling government, then the corporations will control government; and if there us no government at all, then corporations will directly control us.

So I have made a decision to end my own learned helplessness and try out my hand at legislative advocacy. I’ve participated in several meetings on the Hill over the last few weeks, and every time I do, I learn just a little bit more, and feel more confident in my ability to engage meaningfully in the political process.

Many of our legislators have heard extensively from the pro-force, anti-rights contingent; I am told that our voices have not been heard enough. But when we speak out, we are empowered and powerful. Oryx Cohen and Brenda Vezina reported very hopeful results in educating their Congressperson in MA last week, who had been undecided on the issues prior to their visit. Others around the country are sharing their legislative advocacy efforts through the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery’s ongoing grassroots organizing calls, and in emails to me, and it’s been beyond inspiring.

We CAN Make a Difference in Washington, and in Our Communities

Author Marianne Williamson’s current campaign for Congress really resonates with me. She gets ridiculed for being a “new age guru,” but she actually has some pretty down-to-earth things to say about the political process in America today. She issues a call for us to get involved to change the direction of our country:

Slavery ended because abolitionists began the move to abolish it. Women got the vote because suffragettes rose up to achieve it. Legalized segregation ended because the civil rights movement paved the way for civil rights legislation. Now, in our era, it’s time for the people of the United States to rise up and once more do what is necessary to correct our country’s course.

It is not the first time in history that David has won over Goliath. Thanks to our collective advocacy efforts, the Murphy Bill is now widely perceived as controversial on the Hill. However, we cannot let up our fight, as new co-sponsors are signing on all the time. We have to engage, engage, engage with our legislators. We have to reach out and build local coalitions to meet with them, and keep strategizing together. And most importantly, we have to be prepared to answer the question: “So what do we do instead of HR 3717?”

Now is the Time for all Persons With Lived Experience, and Their Allies, to Rise up and say “No More!”

In Get Up, Stand Up, Bruce Levine cites evidence that suggests that social change does not necessarily occur when things get “bad enough,” but when individuals have self-respect and feel a sense of “collective confidence,” or the belief that they can actually win and take back control over their lives.

We are a broad-based advocacy coalition of persons who have been on the receiving end of “treatment” from broken mental health and other systems; those who have been turned away for support when they sought it in their desperate moments; providers who are sick of seeing people further harmed by broken systems; family members who are angry that their loved ones are treated as patients, not people; as well as disability rights, civil rights, and human rights activists. We all are deserving of self-respect, and we have earned a sense of collective confidence over our decades of passionate activism, advocacy, and developing alternatives to harmful treatment practices and destructive social attitudes.

Now is the time for us to put our lived wisdom into action by articulating a vision for alternative, hope-based legislation. We have to share what we want to see, what kinds of supports are really needed in our communities. Alternatives to Involuntary Outpatient Commitment could include:

We Can and Should Unite to Gain Greater Strength

Unity in action comes when people with diverse views and life experiences can focus on what they have in common, instead of on their differences. The Murphy Bill is our opportunity to organize stronger and better than we ever have, as persons with lived experience, people with disabilities, and allies who believe in our values. This is a social justice movement that has not yet experienced its full potential. We are changing that, and we will have our time. We have a vision that would take us forward, not backwards, as proponents of this legislation would do.

We will defeat Goliath.

What You Can Do to Defeat the Murphy Bill and Stand up for Social Justice

Do What Energizes You

Legislative advocacy is not everyone’s cup of tea, and while I am encouraging folks to get into it, I don’t dare suggest that this is the only way we can or should work for social change and social justice. As Bruce Levine says, “if the ultimate goal is a more democratic society, then we should respect that each among us needs to do what builds our self-respect the most.” Media advocacy and letters to the editor are always needed. "Being the media" and creating and sharing our own blogs, podcasts, and videos are equally valuable pursuits. Nonviolent direct action is also very much necessary at this time. We need marches and rallies and events and teach-ins to be happening everywhere in opposition to this frightening legislation and all that it represents.

We also can be right now creating the world we want to see. We do not need to wait for social change to be funded or legislated. Isolated and seeking support in your area? Build community. Start a cooperative to provide peer-to-peer support and support for struggling families in your community. Start a local dialogue on trauma, social inequality, and the real causes of violence and suicide. Frustrated at the lack of real community-based alternatives for people in crisis in your area? Find out who else in your local networks might also care about creating viable alternatives, and get the conversation started as to how to make it happen. Start a babysitting co-op so parents of young children can more easily spend some time on social justice and grassroots organizing. These are just a few examples; the possibilities are endless.

The idea is to dream up how we can take back our power, as individuals and communities. In this way, we attain power together—control over how we determine our own lives, and the collective will to solve our collective problems.

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