Thanks to Kathy Flaherty, the Executive Director at Connecticut Legal Rights Project, for talking with us. Following up on last month’s Mental Health Connecticut event, “Mental Health and the Media”, we wanted to dig deeper into the topic of mental health and media portrayal. Mostly, our interview will encourage many of us to reshape the narrative that surrounds mental health today.
Accessibility Partners: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! Can you tell us more about CLRP and your role?
Kathy Flaherty: Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. (www.clrp.org) is a statewide nonprofit agency which provides legal services to low-income people with mental health conditions on matters related to their treatment, recovery, and civil rights. We were established as the result of settling a lawsuit brought on behalf of residents in the state’s inpatient psychiatric hospitals. We assert our clients’ rights under the Patients’ Bill of Rights, including meaningful participation in treatment (inpatient and outpatient), adequate discharge planning, informed consent to medication, restriction on the use of seclusion and restraint, and limitation on the denial of employment, housing, and licenses solely because of a history of a “mental disorder.”
I am currently the Executive Director of CLRP, which means I have ultimate responsibility for the organization’s management, administration and advocacy.
AP: Why do organizations like the CLRP exist?
KF: Organizations like CLRP are necessary, because discrimination against people with mental health conditions continues to happen, despite the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legal protections available under state statute and the federal and state constitutions.
AP: At the Mental Health in the Media event, one of the charges was for people with mental health disabilities to share their stories.
KF: If you are a person living with a mental health condition, there are many ways in which you can share. There are blogs for which you can write a guest post. In Connecticut, you can get involved through the Keep the Promise Coalition, Advocacy Unlimited, Mental Health Connecticut, or NAMI-Connecticut, among others. Outside CT, you can write an op-ed for your local newspaper and participate in Twitter chats like #BraveChat and #CripTheVote.
AP: Is there any danger in sharing your own story?
KF: It would be disingenuous for me to say that sharing your story only results in positive outcomes. I recognize that I have been particularly fortunate that disclosure of my own story has led to few negative consequences – other than an extended delay in my admission to the Connecticut bar. I have obtained jobs because of my experience as a person living in recovery from a mental health diagnosis – but that is not the experience that many of my friends, and many of CLRP’s clients, share.
AP: Can you elaborate more when you say people don’t ‘struggle’ with mental illness?
KF: Language matters. When we say someone “struggles with” or “suffers from” a mental health condition, we fail to recognize the breadth of people’s experience, including recovery. That is not to say everything is ideal – there have been times where the most accurate word to describe my experience is suffering and/or struggle. All too often, those individuals who give up hope and see no other way out die by suicide. When we only describe a mental illness diagnosis as something with which one is destined to suffer – we close off the door to hope. I think “living with” is a much more accurate word – it leaves room for both the good and the bad.
AP: Can you accomplish change in people’s attitudes toward individuals living with mental health conditions by passing new laws?
KF: As we see from the history of other civil rights laws, the passage of legislation does not automatically mean that the problems such legislation was designed to address go away. There are two very different approaches in terms of looking at disability issues, but particularly regarding mental health disabilities. On the one hand, we have proposed laws like the Disability Integration Act. This operates from a disability rights perspective, making the community integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act actionable. It would provide funding and require states to come up with plans to provide services in the most integrated settings possible: the community. On the other hand, we have proposals which would incentivize treatment in institutions.
AP: What would be the best way for someone to be a mental health advocate?
KF: The most effective advocacy involves the sharing of personal stories. In Connecticut, you can get involved through the Keep the Promise Coalition (http://www.ctkeepthepromise.org/) , Advocacy Unlimited (http://www.mindlink.org/), Mental Health Connecticut (www.mhconn.org), NAMI-Connecticut (www.namict.org) , CT Strong (http://www.abhct.com/Programs_Services/CT-STRONG/) .
There are many of us who have been active in mental health advocacy for many years and are willing to talk with you – although it can be daunting at first, it becomes easier over time.