May is widely recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. For us at CHOICE of NY, every month is mental health awareness month and like everyone else in our “business”, we are happy to take advantage of this marketing moniker to bring more attention to our mission. It seems these days that everyone is talking about mental health… everyone from members of Congress to the news media, celebrities, and even law enforcement. More and more, mental health is becoming a subject for common discourse and that’s a good thing. It’s a long time coming and the result of decades of effort by clusters of advocates fighting the good fight all over the world.
However, we still have a long way to go. In our lifetime, we have seen “minority” groups such as Blacks, Women, and Homosexuals make great strides toward gaining equal rights and respect in our society. Have they achieved all that they can or should? Are they on a completely level playing field? Have they achieved full equality? No way! Just look at what is happening in Baltimore, listen to the ongoing debate about women’s’ compensation levels compared to men, and hear about the ongoing battle for same-sex marriage. Everyone in our society deserves respect as a human being. For these groups, their advocates have worked hard and made great progress, yet, there is still more work to be done there.
Sadly, the largest minority group in this country – the mentally ill – have seen little to no change in their status in society over the course of decades. 1 in 4 adults will struggle with some type of mental illness every year. 1 in 17 live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, or bipolar disease. Only 1 in 10 criminals locked up in our jails does NOT suffer from mental illness. 20% of our children experience mental illness in a year and 10% are affected at any one time. For any other illness, this would be considered an epidemic. And yet, very little has changed in the way that both the legal and health industries address mental health issues.
We recently lost a pioneer in the fight for mental health rights. Her name was Alberta Lessard and she lived in Wisconsin. She passed away last month at the age of 94. In 1971, her landmark court case against the state established for the first time that mental health patients couldn’t be held against their will without being given the same rights as criminals locked away in prison… the SAME rights as CRIMINALS – and this was a landmark case. Unfortunately not much has changed since then and in fact, the right of families and institutions to commit mental health patients against their will is still the subject of much debate today.
On the Road to Mental Health Awareness
It’s not going to be easy but we need to work even harder to elbow our way past perceptions. We need to demand respect as human beings and respect under the law. At CHOICE of NY, we pride ourselves on the fact that every client who walks through our doors starts with a clean slate. So many of the people we see are used to being looked at sideways and being treated as suspects. We are a peer agency and every one of us has walked a mile in the shoes of our clients. We understand what the journey is like and we want each and every person to start from the position that he or she is a valuable and valued human being that deserves the chance to achieve a life of dignity, security, and success. At CHOICE of NY, we give people a real opportunity to move forward and that’s what makes us unique. We provide our services with an extra dose of compassion because we’ve all been there.
So during this month of Mental Health Awareness, we too seek to spread the word, to advocate for the significance of every human being and to encourage those who are in need to seek out the services of agencies like ours who are here to help. We sincerely hope that the increased level of discourse continues to get louder and eventually, breaks through the clutter and leads to real change. We will be here and we will be ready.