On the selling of the Murphy Bill

A couple of weeks ago I ran a series on this blog I called “A Murphy Week,”  I went back and looked at all the things I had written about Murphy and then reposted 3 or 4 of them a day for a week.  I was astonished when I realized how much I had written about Murphy since the Bill has been introduced.  The week didn’t begin to touch all that I had written and I was really left to wonder what was it about all this that had left me so involved.  My voice at best was small and I knew from the start I was not changing the world.  I was not part of any organization.  I was not a CEO or coordinator of anything.  I had no platform that mattered.   I had no kind of any official anything.  I lived in a small town in Tennessee which was not exactly the center of anything.  I was a small ordinary voice but yet it really seemed so important.  Why?

Some of it was clear.  I thought ordinary voices mattered and more than anything that was important.  I could not control how many
people listened or even if anybody listened.  The value of any of it was not in how well it was heard but in how well it was said.

Other things were also clear.  Just when I thought there was nothing left to say Mr. Jaffe would print one of his endless blog posts.  Dr. Torrey would talk to the Wall Street Journal about “fruit smoothies”.  Rep. Murphy would again explain why his Bill would have prevented the latest mass shooting.  Particularly with the original Murphy Bill it seemed like a bad TV show on every channel all the time.  There was always something to talk about.

Particularly at the start they just seemed to be so engaged in creating an opposition. Their stance seemed to be that anyone who didn’t agree with them was dishonest, lacked character, was only interested in their own selfish interests or was an unwitting dupe of one of these people. Their relentless, scorched earth policy created a group of people who felt the same about them. They turned a basic notion of political realism on its head. They tailored their message to the people who already agreed with them and in the process convinced many people who disagreed to disagree stronger. They convinced mental health advocates who no longer believed that what happened in Washington DC mattered that now it did.

The whole thing had a the feel of being sold a used car. Statistics like over 300,000 seriously mentally ill in the jails and I don’t even remember how many seriously mentally ill that were homeless we’re thrown out like crumbs to bait a trap. The whole thing we were told was a failure of the mental health system. And the Murphy Bill would we were told fix it. But there was a problem. If AOT was so important did that mean the states with AOT already had less people seriously mentally ill in their jails than those that didn’t? And do the states with more psychiatric hospital beds have less people with serious mental illness in jails? Was any of it really that simple? And then when you start talking about homelessness did anybody really believe homelessness was a result of lack of mental health treatment? It all felt like being sold a nutritional supplement that would make all the bad things go away. In one breath they would say don’t worry we are only talking about a small portion of a small portion of people and then in the next breath I would hear about the 300,000 in jail and a total reform of a mental health system badly needing total reform. None of it really came together. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was being sold a Yugo or a BMW, but I understood clearly why people need to be careful about what they buy on used car lots.

Like many people at the start I thought the passage of the Murphy Bill was inevitable. It seemed for a while like it was riding an irresistible wave. But it never was. Volume and content are not the same thing. Propaganda and news are not either. It took me a long time to realize how much of the campaign for the Murphy Bill was really more infomercial than anything else.

I always thought he was surprised when the first edition of his Bill flopped so miserably. Whether anybody else bought what he was saying or not he did. For him it seemed like it had went from politics to moral imperative. He just never got it. A bill with something in it for everyone to hate just wasn’t going to move. Moral imperatives and political realities seem seldom to match.

Looking back I am still surprised . A bill that at least according to the PR should have passed by acclamation didn’t move. And it didn’t come close.

The new bill has been a smarter bill and the campaign a smarter campaign. Mr. Jaffe and Dr. Torrey have not been omnipresent. More talk has been about who is with them and less about who is not. There seems to have been a conscious effort to be less abrasive.

The Bill itself is substantially the same. There is a companion bill in the Senate which at least mutes some aspects of the House bill. It is becoming increasingly clear for example that AOT is not going to become the signature piece of anything that actually becomes a law. But Rep. Murphy is still pushing and still does his best to paint it as common sense long denied.

A couple of months ago I started being told there was a drama behind the scenes. There was strong divisions and the Murphy Bill I was told was not going to pass. In fact the people I talked to told me it was unlikely to get out of the committee. The chairman of the committee had approached the ranking democrat about a bipartisan compromise and it appeared Rep. Murphy was no longer driving the boat.

The recent letter from Democrats on the committee that I and many other people have tried to widely share confirms all this. The koolaid has not been widely drank and many people have substantive issues they want addressed. Basically (and please read the letter if you haven’t) they seriously question rather an approach that treats the human and civil rights of the people served in the mental health system as an impediment to effective treatment is even legal much less a real reform to a broken system.

I know I cheered when I read the letter. It confirmed so much of what I have heard so many advocates saying. More than that it confirms that advocacy works. Voices have been heard. What is essential now is that people continue to speak. You are being heard.

I don’t know if Murphy is dead for the year or not. Whether it is or not it will be back next year so continuing to speak matters. Rep. Murphy will not quit. He will not lose because he didn’t try. I don’t really understand much about the political realities of this but I know he will not stop.

Murphy is not inevitable. Your voice and mine matter. We need to have a conversation about reform that really makes a difference. The democratic letter for the first time in a long time left me hopeful such a conversation is possible. What we are against has I believe mattered.

It is time for what we are for to matter just as much.


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