Tuesday Apr 25

Back Story: Mental Health – One of the Civil Rights Issues of Our Time

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When we read about the horrors of various “repeal and replace” proposals from the United States Congress Speaker of the House and various Republican factions from arch-conservative to semi-moderate, it is hard not to wonder what country many of them live in and how often they are spending time dealing with real people in their districts, rather than the dogmatic ideologues of their cloakroom colleagues. The examples seem endless, and it’s not an exaggeration to see them as life-or-death for hundreds of thousands, if not millions. No individual issue seems starker than their plan to eliminate the requirement that insurance cover mental health issues, including treatment and recovery from addiction and alcoholism.

In the heart of what has been the traditional rust belt base of the Democrats and is now touted as the difference in electing the president and now the heartland base for Donald Trump, the opioid crisis is especially devastating and raging at record levels. Governors, even Republican governors, understand this fully and have been voices arguing for continued protection, and the response has been silence with the proposal that the problem be pushed back to them with less money and concern.

The crisis is larger than just the impact of drugs and alcohol. Widely reported estimates from health experts place the percentage of Americans with mental health issues at 20% of the total population counting everything in that category. We are talking about close to 70 million people. That’s huge! Others extend the impact at various levels to up to half of the US population that will have a mental health crisis of one sort or another in their lifetime. The family and societal burden from
suicide to homelessness is inestimable, but these are just the canaries in the mine shafts that we cannot avoid recognizing. The extent of the crisis is far broader.

Mental health issues are more often an invisible disability. An interview in The New York Times with actress, Glen Close, and Patrick Kennedy, former US Congressman from Rhode Island and youngest son of Senator Ted Kennedy, on the debilitating effect of mental health issues brought home the sense of “there but for fortune” go all of us. No one is immune. Many are chosen. Close referred to the issue tellingly as one of the key “civil rights issues of our time,” and she’s right.

Working with MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network in Alaska, talking to other people with these “lived experiences” in Illinois and other states, and reading Lee Staples review earlier in this issue, underline her point. There is a stigma attached that forces people into hiding and denial. Basic rights are lost in concealment, and, as we see in the Republican proposals, are stripped away by exploiting the silence and invisibility of the victims.

This is a constituency that desperately needs to find its voice and to do so now when there is so much at stake. Advocacy is welcome, but as we have seen in other health reform movements, there is no substitute for people organizing themselves, making demands, and refusing to be ignored. The time may not be right, but the time is now.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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