The New Civil Rights Movement

I recently had the privilege of attending the Kennedy Forum where our nation’s best and brightest minds in the Behavioral Health industry got together to share ideas and cheer each other on. This Forum was a celebration of President John F. Kennedy’s signing of legislation that made Mental Illness a disease that should be treated as such. Before this bill was made law on October 23, 1963 anybody who suffered from a mental illness and/or developmental delay such as what was then called mental retardation, was sent to an institution. These institutions as we all know were inhumane. A simple web search of Dorothea Dix’s expose of the deplorable living situations in these institutions during the mid 1800s will give you an idea of what the legislation did for this segment of humanity.  The legislation, incidentally, was the last bill signed by President Kennedy before he died. Imagine where we would be today if he had been able to finish this work!  So, there I was mingling (or more like smiling and waving like a blooming idiot) with the Surgeon General of the United States, members of the Kennedy family, Dr. Aaron Beck, Chelsea Clinton, policy makers with the Obama administration, Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears, and Vice President Biden to name a few of the power players. The minds and the connections that were present have the power to change the world we live in when it comes to Behavioral Health. I was in awe.

Believe me when I tell you that this was a surreal experience for me. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky where my dad was a psychologist. His private practice would eventually become the third largest in the state, however when I worked there as a teenager it was small even though he was one of the only therapists in the city. Now imagine being a teenage girl responsible for checking friends’ (and frenemies’) parents in for a session, and having to transcribe session notes for every single session. This was the 1980s and anorexia and marriage therapy were the hot button news items, but the stigma of seeing a “therapist” for anything other than that was huge – scandalous in a town our size. I remember scanning the schedule every day for anyone I knew (and who knew me too) so that I could be in the back while someone else checked them in. Most people never knew that I was there much less that I transcribed their session notes. They would have been mortified. Imagine the pressures of being a teenage girl at the height of the “gossipy years” knowing everybody’s business! Here’s the thing, I learned at an early age that everyone has so-called skeletons in their closets. And I learned that it wasn’t a big deal. I learned how to listen and type without hearing a word. So even though I typed all those session notes, I couldn’t have told you then, and certainly not now a word that was said about anybody. I knew who was there because I filed the paperwork but I couldn’t tell you why and frankly I didn’t care the reason, it wasn’t my business. I was very protective of the people who came into the office for help and they never knew. Times were so different then. Psychiatric facilities were still called Mental Hospitals (they still are sometimes, which makes me cringe) or Asylums or Sanitoriums. Most treatment facilities were just wings off the main hospital anyway and if you were seen coming out of 2 North in our town, tongues would start wagging. People were called insane or psychotic or crazy and therapists were called head doctors, shrinks, and crazy docs. Fortunately, the language has changed a bit, as has the general population’s view on seeking treatment. I think that is largely due to the quality of care people can get in hospitals now and the famous people who have “come out” to share their stories: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brandon Marshall, Herschel Walker, Brooke Shields, Patrick Kennedy, and Lenny Kravitz to name a few. Their bravery has given the face of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Recovery a lift for the regular people of the world. People know they’re not alone and there is someone pretty cool out there who’s suffered too.

So to be a part of this event, I was in awe. Mental Health is a hot issue right now with the government, especially in light of the many public tragedies blamed on it. But it’s nothing new to me. I am hopeful that there will be a day where the stigma and shame of seeking treatment is eliminated. To me a Mental Illness is no different than a Physical Illness. Would you judge your friend for suffering from diabetes or cancer? Then why do we walk away from someone who has Paranoid Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder? Because they act strange? Why do we call someone suffering from Depression lazy or over dramatic because they can’t get out of bed in the morning? Why do we tell a soldier suffering from PTSD to just get over it already? Vice President Biden said it used to be that space was the final frontier, but it’s not. The brain in the final frontier. We have so much to learn about what happens inside our brains and the causes of mental illness, from depression to psychosis. And now is the time. I am hopeful and optimistic because there is some serious dialogue about it rumbling throughout the country. People are coming out in the light to share their experiences. As Patrick Kennedy said, “This is the new Civil Rights Movement!” Indeed it is.

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