Welcoming Remarks for Consumer Subcommittee
Welcome to the Center for Mental Health Services, and to the Consumer Subcommittee of the CMHS Advisory Council.
I first heard about the mental health consumer movement in the early 1980s, when a professor of mine in graduate school suggested that I read Judy Chamberlins book, On Our Own. It would not be an exaggeration to say that book changed my life. It revolutionized my thinking about the role of people with mental health problems. In her book, Judy was able to articulate the anger many consumers felt about the failures of the treatment system, and about the indignities and human rights violations many had suffered. At the same time, she conveyed a message of empowerment, that people didnt need to feel confined by definitions imposed on them by others, and that we could, each of us, help ourselves and help each other.
I sought Judy out. I went to her house outside Boston, sat in her kitchen, and asked her what she felt was the most important issue facing consumers at that time. The Rogers decision had been pending in the courts, and Judy said in her view the most important issue was the right to refuse treatment. As a result of my conversation with her, I designed and conducted a study and wrote my doctoral dissertation on attitudes toward the right to refuse treatment, comparing the attitudes of medical and law students toward this right. I attended meetings and rallies with consumer groups and subscribed to Madness Network News. The mood at that time in the movement seemed to be one of a revolution, an overthrowing of the chains people felt had been imposed by the treatment system and by societal attitudes, and a re-definition of who we are as people.
As the years passed, I drifted away from the consumer movement. I got my degree, found a job, worked for the Federal government in administering mental health and substance abuse programs, trying to make any small difference I could in a positive direction.
Fast forward to July 31 of this year. Bernie Arons had asked me if Id be interested in acting as Deputy Director of CMHS, I said Id love to, and July 31 was my first day on the job. That day I attended a national meeting to support the State mental health planning councils. I felt like Rip van Winkle waking up after a long sleep. What had been, in the early 1980s, a fledgling grassroots movement now had direction. The consumer movement now had tangible political power. Consumers were no longer outside the gate shouting to be heard. They were sitting at the table, interacting with State and Federal governments to formulate policy.
This subcommittee is another opportunity to move us forward. Just as I sat in Judy Chamberlins kitchen years ago and asked her, what did she see as the most important issue, so we sit with you today and ask the same question. But the result this time will be more than a doctoral dissertation. We ask you to consider and to tell the Council, over the life of the subcommittee, what do you see as the most important issues for consumers? What are the failings of the treatment system that we might help to correct? What are the human rights violations that still continue? And how can the consumer movement be better served? How can the movement be best supported and cultivated to continue to grow and evolve?
Im sure you are mindful that behind each of you symbolically stand the hundreds and thousands of people whom you represent. Each of us carries with us the faces of people we have seen in institutions, in seclusion rooms, in restraints, in halfway houses, in community centers, in doctors offices. We carry the sounds of their voices, their cries of despair and their cries for help. We feel the burden of their cares and the responsibility to answer their cries. Let us work together to help each other so that they and all of us may be free to realize our full human potential.