Beyond Murphy : Kathy Flaherty

The fight to improve our mental health system, both in my state (Connecticut) and nationally, is a battle that I am prepared to wage not only professionally, but personally.  I am a person living in recovery from a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was civilly committed my first year of law school. I admitted myself to hospitals several times. My education comes not only from books, but from my lived experience.  I know what it is like to be hospitalized against my will; to be forcibly medicated; to be secluded.  I experienced side effects of medication like lethargy and weight gain. I know what it is like to be judged for my mental health history and found lacking; my admission to the Connecticut bar was delayed for a year and a half, and was conditional on both me and my doctor reporting to the Statewide Grievance Counsel that I remained compliant with my treatment.
I also know what it is like to recover. It took me more than a decade to find my path to wellness and to arrive in a place in which I am truly happy.  During many of these years, I was able to achieve traditional markers of “success”:  I graduated from law school, was admitted to the bar, found a job, met and married a wonderful man.  I became involved in mental health advocacy; I was an instructor and facilitator of peer support groups and educational programs.
I have been open about my mental health diagnosis since my first year of law school, when I put my membership on the Council of Former Patients of McLean Hospital on my resume.  The folks at the Office of Public Interest Advising suggested that I should reconsider including that information, but I have never seen my illness as something to be ashamed of or something that I need to hide.  In fact, my disclosure resulted in my finding a summer internship at an organization, Connecticut Legal Rights Project, representing the rights of people diagnosed with mental health conditions – an organization of which I am now proud to be the Executive Director.
I wrote a guest editorial, disclosing my condition, for the Harvard Law School newspaper my third year of law school after seeing comments made by some of my fellow students in response to another student who was going through a mental health crisis. Some people called me brave for doing so; to me, it simply seemed the right thing to do.
Recovery is real.  There are some proponents of the Murphy legislation that will say that the bill is only supposed to apply to people with “seriously mentally ill” and not people like me who “only” need and want “feel-good” services.  That discounts the “seriousness” of my mental health condition.  I acknowledge that I am among the “mentally well” today, but if you want to talk serious, talk to my family who saw the car I crashed into a light pole on the highway or the friends who visited me in the hospital after suicide attempts with pills.
Some may say the difference is that I “recognized” I needed help and accepted it when it was offered. That is an over-simplification of what it took for me to recover.  The proposed bill measures successful outcomes by showing up at appointments and compliance with prescribed medication.  I can tell you from personal experience, one can show up at medical appointments and take all of one’s medications – but not experience recovery.  Following orders is not recovery; recovery means active participation in one’s community. Recovery means taking charge of one’s life.  I have been incredibly fortunate to have never needed to worry about meeting my most basic needs – housing, food, income to pay the bills.  If I lacked the resources to meet those needs, I would not have had the energy to invest in my recovery.
People need access to the supports and services that they need for their recovery.  They need access to advocacy representing their interests so that they can meet their goals. 
Representative Murphy’s bill is called the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015” and that title essentially sums up the problems I have with this bill.  This bill is all about helping families; it is not necessarily about helping the person who actually has the mental health diagnosis. This bill is about imposing solutions on people against their will, rather than finding out from them what their goals are, and what kind of assistance they need to meet them. Undermining existing privacy protections under HIPAA and FERPA is not necessary when mechanisms already exist for people to get information – either by consent, as expressed in an advance directive, or permitted by a court under a conservatorship order. 
PAIMI programs protect and advocate for individuals living with mental illness.  Their mission is not solely to investigate cases of abuse and neglect, but also to identify and remove systemic barriers that prevent citizens with psychiatric disabilities from exercising their rights.  Legal advocates representing their clients do so under a professional code of conduct that requires them to be zealous advocates for their clients’ objectives – not the interests of other parties, such as family members.   It is not a lawyer’s job to act in their client’s best interests; the lawyer’s job is to outline for the client the elements of informed choice about decision-making, including the consequences of taking or not taking a particular action, and then be guided by what the client says.  It is not the lawyer’s job to be a substitute decision-maker for the client; it is to listen to the client, and abide by the client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation.  To do this is not always easy; many of us might not make the same choices as our clients do in any given situation. However, the role of the lawyer is to outline the consequences of the choices, not to make the decisions.
Many of us who have been engaged in mental health advocacy for a number of years are frustrated by the continual re-visiting of ideas that have already been found not to work. Re-establishment of inpatient hospital beds when the community mental health system does not have the resources it needs is a misplaced use of resources.  We cannot return to the days when people spent long periods of time institutionalized against their will; people already are spending too much time in hospitals because the system does not have capacity to move them into the most integrated community setting. We need to find ways of engaging people to make a connection in which they feel that their voice is being listened to and respected. People need to be supported in their journeys towards healing.  For many of us, it is through learning from peers how they maintained their recovery that has become a critical piece.
You will often hear the phrase “Nothing about us without us.”  We know best what our life experience has been – what has worked, and more importantly, what doesn’t work.  Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result – haven’t I heard that as one definition of insanity?  We can, and must, do better.


One thought on “Beyond Murphy : Kathy Flaherty”

  1. We can not take away the voice of the mentally ill. They must be heard and their needs met. Advocacy for change in the system is essential, but not where resources are denied or patients are given no choice. The peer specialist is a perfect example of fixing the disconnect between primary care physicians and psychologists. The Murphy Bill will hurt the mentally ill and society as a whole.

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