National Discussions on Mental Health

So, last Tuesday, my co-intern and I were able to take the day off work to attend an Alternative Dispute Resolution workshop hosted at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown. As I walked into the building, I didn’t know what to expect…all I knew was that this workshop was focused on mental health issues and that the host, Dan Bernstein, was a mental health mediator with us at the New York Peace Institute. I had met him once before, when he stopped by our office in the Criminal Court division – he told us that he had sort of “made up” the mental health mediation field and was expanding it with Michele Kirschbaum, NYPI’s Director of Programs for the Brooklyn Office.

At the workshop’s culmination, Dan explained that the White House is in the midst of developing a project to reform and reevaluate the mental health system in the US. This meeting was one of the first community meetings held and was tasked to come up with a list of issues with the mental health system that should be improved and reevaluated.

The attendees of this meeting were divided into groups of 7 people and seated at different tables. Each group had 2 facilitators who served as moderators for the conversation. The table I was at had an array of people from all walks of life, many of whom were suffering from mental health issues. The first questions posed was “what are some issues people with mental health issues face on a daily basis?” My group launched into a very enlightening discussion. One of our group members, a lady in her 30s who suffered from bi-polar disorder, told us that after she was mugged on the street a year ago, the police refused to take her complaint since she mentioned that she was struggling with a mental disorder. The police felt that they could not trust the validity of her story, since the facts might have been tainted by her mental condition. Another group member, recounted his experience of visiting a hospital for knee treatment. His medical records indicated that he too suffered from bi-polar disorder, and was held at the hospitals for 4 hours because the nurses would not let him leave without a psychological evaluation. He expressed his frustration that his mental illness prevented him from receiving basic medical attention. Another lady in our group recalled being “dumped” by her psychiatrist after she was institutionalized for a suicide attempt.

I learned that people with mental illnesses are often issued a disability metro card which enables them to ride the subway at half-price. Two people with these cards, who were members of the Fountain House clubhouse (which I will explain in a bit) were tackled by policemen on two separate occasions because the police did not believe that they were disabled. I was truly shocked to hear of the persecution and discrimination that people struggling with mental health issues faced on a daily basis. I was also very appalled by the lack of support from medical professionals. However, there are some organizations that are being established to provide support for people with mental health issues. One of these organizations is Fountain House (http://www.fountainhouse.org), a clubhouse that provides life-long membership. Fountain House provides the following services:

  • education
  • job training
  • housing
  • research opportunities in the mental health field.

Many of the people at my table were clubhouse members and advocates. They provide support for each other through dark times and even through times of stability and prosperity. The mission of the organization is to give people with mental health issues tools and experience to get back into the job force. Instead of claiming responsibility as an organization, they give the power back to the clubhouse members. In other words, instead of saying “Fountain House helped Jerry get a job,” they say “Jerry got a job last week.” It truly seems like a wonderful community that deserves a lot more recognition and funding.

At the end of the meeting, we drafted a list of concerns that should be focused on. This list is now being combined with lists from the other tables into a comprehensible document that will be sent to the White House. Since this process is still in the beginning phases, I am eager to see what becomes of it. I am hopeful, despite the bureaucracy, that the system will be changed and that people struggling with mental illnesses will be able to get more support and have better access to resources in the near future.

Please read President Obama’s from June 3rd, speech regarding this issue:http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2013/06/03/president-obama-speaks-national-conference-mental-health#transcript