Sunday, March 3, 2013

CT Media Ignores Human Rights Rally

The early afternoon on Saturday, March 3 was cold, gray, windy - a perfect day to stay indoors, worry free. That is precisely what the media in Hartford did. 

All the while, dozens of outraged citizens were gathered at the capitol giving heartfelt testimony on proposed legislation that threatens the rights of a certain group of citizens - the mentally ill. 

The group, Advocacy Unlimited, organized the rally to prove they still have a voice, despite people trying to silence them. Brave, honest people spoke about their experiences falling through the cracks of the mental health system. Some were institutionalized, some were imprisoned, some were drugged, but all made it out alive and well. 

Their stories provide inspiration, not just another derivative public hearing but the kind of inspiration needed by Connecticut residents living in the shadow of recent tragedy.

The state of mental illness has been a hot topic in Connecticut since the Newtown shootings in mid December. Since then not a day seems to go by that the media and politicians don't seize some sort of opportunity to discuss the problem - a problem they suddenly have to pretend to care about. They're trying desperately not to get too close - perhaps out of fear. Looking at the proposals through the eyes of someone with the capacity for empathy and maybe their own horror stories to tell, reveals that legislators don't have the interests of the mentally ill at heart. Outside of a dystopian novel, involuntary commitment is not an appropriate answer to the problem. 

The truth is, mental illness is highly stigmatized - many people are aware of this and yet continue to perpetuate it. This is the kind of harmful cognitive dissonance that groups like Advocacy Unlimited can help to remedy - if only someone would listen. 

Just weeks earlier, at the very same location where AU gathered, another rally was held. This one was full of Rocky Hill residents and angry homeowners. This one was full of media, and MC'd by local politicians. This one featured vitriolic speeches that practically equated mental illness and criminality. And this was the one that got the attention. I was there on assignment, tasked with giving it attention and alongside other reporters. It was another bitterly cold day and I scribbled quotes down in my notebook, wondering if attendees could read the look of shock and indignation on my face. 

I just typed "Advocacy Unlimited rally" on Google and the hits pointed only to their website. Try the same with "Rocky Hill rally" and see if you starve for news links. 

An involuntary commitment bill was defeated weeks before the Newtown shootings. Self-righteous moral crusaders have actually argued that the bill could have stopped the shooting. They frame the situation in what they think are purely rational terms, but in actuality the scenario they point to is more like Minority Report - for "brain cooties." 

Individuals who have struggled with ebbs and flows of depression, anxiety, euphoria and dysphoria are labeled mentally ill. In the eyes of many, they are deficient human beings who need to be drugged, locked away, or at the very least need to stop whining and keep their sadness to themselves. It just isn't possible that someone might actually be a person living in a troubling world and being spoon fed crap on a regular basis. Anything outside constant cheerfulness is deemed dysfunctional and subsequently pathologized.

Try and fight back after this happens and it's just the mental illness talking. This is not to say, however, that mental illness is a myth. Gene and brain imaging research clearly point to the contrary and misdiagnosis can occur in every field of medicine. But mental illness and addiction are the only two sicknesses you can have and still get blamed for. No cancer patient in the history of the world has ever been chastised for being a burden on the family, they have never been told to shape up or ship out.  And no cancer patient in the world will ever be forced into chemo. With hope and the continued efforts of groups like Advocacy Unlimited, one day the same will be said of mentally ill patients. 

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