Can we make an impact : a guest post by Kathy Flaherty

Larry Drain recently posed the question: Can this movement be an effective force for political change? My answer is: yes, absolutely, provided that we learn how to get out of our own way, and how to win friends and influence people.
Our campaign is advocacy for REAL mental health change (see realmhchange.org for more info.) Advocacy is defined in Webster-Merriam dictionary as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.”  From the online etymology dictionary:  ADVOCATE: mid-14c., “one whose profession is to plead cases in a court of justice,” a technical term from Roman law, from Old French avocat “barrister, advocate, spokesman,” from Latin advocatus “one called to aid; a pleader, advocate,” noun use of past participle of advocare “to call” (as witness or advisor) from ad- “to” (see ad-) + vocare “to call,” related to vocem (see voice (n.)). Also in Middle English as “one who intercedes for another,” and “protector, champion, patron.”
Our very presence in the arena of public opinion changes the dialogue. Each time one of us writes a blog post, shares a story on Facebook, or sends a tweet, we add to the conversation about what needs to change in the mental health system to make it work better for everyone who is involved in it. When we share the stories of our lived experience, we demonstrate the reality of what it means to recover and to assert our rights to full participation in our communities.  Our refusal to remain silent in the face of discrimination forces others who might otherwise make decisions based on assumptions about what it is like to live with a mental illness (i.e., stigma) realize that there are other, equally valuable, perspectives which must be acknowledged and addressed.
We need to understand, among ourselves, that none of us truly speaks with a single voice on behalf of all of us.  We often say, “Nothing about us, without us.”  However, each of us as individuals needs to take responsibility to make sure that when we speak or write, unless we have been asked to present a response on behalf of a particular community, that we are voicing our own personal opinions and our own individual perspectives.  We need to respect our differences so that we can reach accord on those principles on which we agree.  My biggest personal frustration with our movement is when I encounter a lack of respect for alternative viewpoints. Every person comes to conclusions about situations based on their experiences. What we do best is open people’s eyes, hearts, and minds to another way of looking at things – often a way that they have not previously considered.  However, when we take a position of “my way or the highway” or “I’m right, you’re wrong” we close doors to communication.  Now, more than ever, we desperately need those pathways to remain open. We need to respect people’s rights to have a (wrong) opinion. If we are convincing and effective in our arguments, people will come around to our way of thinking.  If one way of presenting information to them doesn’t work, we need to find another way. 
I am a lawyer.  I am capable of arguing over just about anything (ask anyone who knows me.)  The best lawyers (advocates) are those who thoroughly understand the other side of the case – well enough to make that argument and win; in that way we figure out both the strengths and weaknesses of our own arguments in order to make a more effective case in court or elsewhere.
It is my belief that we need to present our arguments from a human rights perspective that respects individual autonomy and self-determination and acknowledges the different ways in which people find recovery.  For some, but not all, the mental health treatment system is part of that healing journey.  For some, but not all, the mental health treatment system has been a source of pain and suffering.  Both of those truths are valid – to come to any other conclusion means (in my opinion) devaluing other peoples’ experiences.   As a group, we too often have our perspectives maligned and discounted by others; let us not be guilty of the same offense.
The amount of emotional energy that some of us have had to spend in arguments “within the family” is better spent on figuring out strategies to address the people who would take away our rights in the guise of “improving” the mental health system. There appears to be no way of avoiding this once one becomes involved in any kind of advocacy effort. However, wouldn’t things be easier if we could figure out how to get along with one another, and get past our (minor and not-so-minor) differences so we could accomplish our ultimate goal of defeating the bills we need to defeat so that life does not get worse for all of us?
I do not want to find myself like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who, after learning of his wife’s death by suicide, says that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”  First, I know that we are not idiots.  Second, there is no question that we are loud (deafening, at times, and we must be) and are often angry (with good cause).  Finally, I simply refuse to believe that all of this means nothing. We need to call all our voices to be heard in order to accomplish real mental health change.

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One thought on “Can we make an impact : a guest post by Kathy Flaherty”

  1. There was a time for a call to unity. It has passed, by 20 or 30 years. For those of us who would see ourselves and our comrades truly free, there is no standing with professional “peers” who are brainwashed and, essentially, behaviorally modified with a “token” wage and position to create even more career mental patients. There is no standing with conservative organizations such as Mental Health America who support these practices and issue statements that is watered down version of H.R. 2646 is a victory. Carnegie wrote the now cliched phrase “win friends and influence people” a hundred years ago. His program was essentially a guide to manipulating others in business settings into doing what you want through people pleasing. Most of our people would not be in the straits they are in if they had not been taught or abused into the box of “people pleasing” to the point that they were unwilling to say NO to someone running an electric current through their brains. There are very few activists left who truly understand human rights and are unwilling to compromise anyone’s humanity for a slightly less horrible law, treatment, or token salary. I am one of them; and, I stand with none of the groups I mention here. I most certainly do not accept any of them as my leaders. I stand, essentially, alone. And, on behalf of all who wish to be truly free–even those who do not yet recognize their oppression.

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