WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM
THE DEATH OF CSAMH (CONNECTICUT SELF ADVOCATES FOR MENTAL HEALTH)
In September 1903, W.E.B. Dubois, a Harvard educated scholar, published a ground breaking article in which he speculated that African Americans could only achieve social equality and social justice through the efforts of a small group of elite intellectuals whom he referred to as “The Talented Tenth.”
In a recent incident here in Connecticut, a 17 year old inmate identified as having a mental illness imprisoned at the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire committed suicide. His incarceration and subsequent death places a spotlight on the issue of what happens when insufficient community services for people labeled with mental illness leads to substantially increased numbers of prison inmates who are considered mentally ill.
In the years since I began to be involved in advocacy, I continue to see a mental health system plagued with inadequate resources, hampered by a community – the citizenry of the State of Connecticut—which still does not seem to understand the ethical and social implications of refusing to address the needs of some of its most vulnerable—those labeled with mental illness. After a decade, why is it that promises state government made to support the recovery of people with psychiatric labels remains broken?
I do not believe that DMHAS (Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services) wished for cutbacks in mental health treatment, but I do believe it is wholly responsible for this outcome. For any oppressed group, be it African-Americans, homosexuals, or those with other unique abilities, the very core of social activism which leads to equitable policies and, if necessary, rehabilitative support, lies in the establishment of powerful and vocal advocacy groups made up of the members of that group. The NAACP, for example, was the direct consequence of W.E.B. Dubois’ advocacy, and has been a powerful voice for change on behalf of people of color in this country.
Where DMHAS is responsible for its own downfall has been in its systematic elimination of any viable consumer voice which could speak out on its behalf, while also acting as a loyal opposition in pointing out its weaknesses and failures in order to correct them for the better. Personally, I would not say, as W.E.B. Dubois did, that adequate leadership among people labeled with psychiatric disabilities must come from the most highly educated among us. In fact, I would put far greater confidence on the most passionate and the most deeply committed. But what I would say is that in order to achieve any of our goals in advocating for equality and justice and access to services, housing, and vocational training, etc. within the community of people labeled with mental illness, we must be allowed our leaders, and also allowed the ongoing identification, training, and support of leaders. So far this has not been done.
Years ago, this State had a thriving and active consumer led organization known as CT Self Advocates For Mental Health. This was a group that, under the leadership of Will Brady and Lorraine Stanek and numerous others, among many other things (I can’t list them all!) conducted conferences, provided self-help/self-advocacy training, publishing a newsletter called “Emerging Image,” maintained an information and referral phone line, developed a research library, participated in DMH and P & A and other top level policy and strategy meetings, as well as nationwide conferences.
This consumer/survivor led organization played a central role in developing forward looking and just policies within the mental health system, as well as educating folks within the community to promote a stronger base of support and understanding. This is the organization that first articulated the concept of recovery which DMHAS has currently adopted as its central philosophy. So what happened to this organization? In 1992, it was financially starved out of existence by the then DMH and replaced a year later by Advocacy Unlimited, an organization which is kept well under the thumb of DMHAS and does a fraction of the work of CSAMH using substantially more money. But most significantly, Advocacy Unlimited has been used as a means to silence some of the most effective advocates we've had available in the State of Connecticut today.
After the demise of CSAMH, Rowland shut down Norwich Hospital and Fairfield Hills Hospital while proposing a 41% cut in the budget for community Mental Health Care. As a result of the closing and the cuts in the state budget, a substantial number of people who might otherwise be receiving mental health treatment are ending up in jail. As a result, The Hartford Courant reported that “prison expenditures tripled in Connecticut since 1991 to more than a half-billion dollars a year.” (7/31/05) I can’t help wondering if this all could have been avoided if DMHAS had preserved the voices of the very people—maverick consumers and survivors—who could most powerfully have spoken out against such foolish and misguided policies.
So this is the lesson. If DMHAS cannot tolerate a free, independent and proud consumer/survivor organization based upon the principles of empowerment, self-determination and justice, one which takes as its central role the task of challenging DMHAS and other state agencies, as well as the citizens and legislators in the State of CT, to maintain the highest standards of service to the community of those labeled with psychiatric disabilities, then they will continue to face the imprisonment, death, and ongoing deterioration of members of that community, and they remain solely responsible for that outcome.