The Big Lie: About Us Without Us

I know of this attorney in Virginia. His official title is Regional Human Rights Advocate. In such a capacity he serves people in the mental health system in that state. He has been known to give presentations at outpatient and inpatient facilities around the area. He has given presentations, inspired by Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly successful people, on what he refers to as The Seven Principles of Effective Self-Advocacy. Given that people within the mental health system often don’t understand the law, and their rights under that law, this kind of instruction can be a very good thing to have.

Often in some mental health literature you will read where people with psychiatric labels are referred to as “voiceless”. You will also see where they are lumped among what are referred to as America’s, or even the world’s, “most vulnerable citizens”. Are they actually “voiceless”? No, it’s just nobody has bothered to ask them about their wants and desires. Are they actually a segment of the world’s “most vulnerable population”? It probably varies from individual to individual. Given enough gumption, no, there are people who are much closer to death and eclipse than most of the people being treated, or mistreated, for mental health issues. The problem here then is one of these people wondering what the heck to do with those people.

There is a saying and slogan among people in the Disabilities Rights Movement that goes, “Nothing About Us Without Us!” When one claims to be speaking for other people, without those other people being present, we have to ask whose interests are actually being served. We don’t know whether this group or that group is truly being represented until we hear from members of the group itself. When any members of the group can express their own concerns, the need for an intermediary to express those concerns for them has vanished. Should such an prophylactic mediation persist, we have to question the motives of the intermediary.

There are many untruths in the current literature on mental health, but I don’t think there is any bigger untruth than this assumption that a psychiatric label magically takes away capacity, or perhaps, more pointedly, that a psychiatric label strips us of our connection to the rest of the human species. The implication is that somehow the very thing that makes a person human has been lost through the act of applying a label to that person. Humans can speak for themselves. They aren’t animals. The capacity to communicate, in fact, is the very thing that separates us from many species lower down on the evolutionary tree. People labeled “mentally ill” are usually not mute, nor are they incapable of intelligible speech.

The less people who have known the mental health system from the receiving end are listened to, the more distance the great lie that somebody must do their speaking for them gets. This is a dangerous lie. People are buried under this lie, real people. The great lie, in fact, takes lives. It takes the best of life, and it takes what makes life important. Your life is reduced to the words of a person who claims to represent you, and a person who doesn’t represent you in actual fact. He or she doesn’t think you should be speaking in your own words and from your own personal experience. He or she thinks he or she should be telling other people how to best respond to you. He or she has replaced you with a big fat lie.

Advocating for the suppression of people’s rights in the mental health system is often confused with advocating for the rights of people in the mental health system. When people who have endured the system themselves become advocates, no such confusion is possible. The system right now is incorporating the use of certified Peer Support Specialists into its operations. Sometimes these Peer Support Specialists are not nearly so rights savvy as they ought to be. We’re not talking patient rights, or even mental health consumer rights, either. Out of that kind of talk you get the right to treatment without a corresponding right to refuse treatment. We’re talking human rights. We’re talking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three of these rights are jeopardized by that psychiatric assault known as coercive mental health intervention. When the voices denied these rights, have been permitted a chance to speak in support of these rights, then and only then will you know that progress is being made.