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May is Mental Health Awareness Month
A brief history of the Psychiatric Survivor Movement
In 1949, the National Mental Health Association declared May is Mental Health Month to “raise awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of children, families, and communities.” Identifying trauma as a leading cause of mental health conditions is one of the ways that we’ve been breaking stigma. There is a slow shift from asking what is wrong with someone to asking what happened to someone.
Shelter-In-Place and other societal changes in the last three years have led to an increase in mental health difficulties for many. Whether you feared a virus or a totalitarian government for many the result was a state of ongoing complex trauma. Being separated from loved ones and shut-downs threw some into almost complete physical isolation and separated them from all in person services for a year or more. People who have never had mental health issues began facing them for the first time. This has brought a new awareness of the need for quality mental health care, which is a good thing, but it has also put stress on the resources creating an even greater challenge in finding quality mental health services.
Historically people with mental health issues have been mistreated and feared. During Eugenics 64,000 people with mental health issues were forcibly sterilized to keep them from passing faulty genes onto their children. People who were labeled “insane” could be locked up for years in institutions where they were experimented on and tortured.
The patient liberation movement began in the 1970s when people released from mental health facilities began speaking out about all they’d endured. They noted that they were psychiatric survivors and advocated for changes in language. The word, “consumer” refers to having the ability to choose for yourself. The word “client” comes from Karl Rogers and person-centered therapy which emphasizes unconditional positive regard, capacity for growth and self-direction. People in locked facilities now have the right to refuse medication, speak with patients’ rights advocates, and create legal documents defining what works best for them.
Jay Mahler, one of the founders of the psychiatric survivors’ civil rights movement said, “This is the last civil rights movement. People are still oppressed more than any other group in society.” He worked so that people who needed mental health support were treated with dignity and had basic human rights for services. He also fought for services to be provided by those with lived experience, “because they have great empathy because of what they’ve been through.” Out of this passion he secured funding for several peer run centers and paved the way for the peer support specialist training BestNow! He founded the advocacy group The Pool of Consumer Champions (POCC) who put peers front and center in the delivery of mental health services and creating systemic changes. He hoped that we could move from a medical model to one that was focused on wellness and recovery.
As someone who had the privilege of knowing Jay, I witnessed his heart of compassion and tireless service even while in his last days of life he was on zoom meetings advocating and brainstorming on ways to bring change and improvement for those with lived experience.
Today people with lived experience of mental health issues are leaders in the mental health field. Peer supporters are recognized all over the United States for their unique ability to support and connect with people with mental health challenges. There are wellness centers and respites organized and run by peers.
In 2018 California’s Governor Gary Brown made a proclamation of May as mental health Awareness Month. He said, "Californians join the nation in raising awareness of mental health issues and services, sharing personal knowledge and experience of what living with mental illness means can reduce the barriers and stigma associated with individuals seeking mental health treatment to live longer, healthier lives.” We now have the Mental Health Service Act to provide funding for prevention and new ways of helping people. IN January 2021 the mental health parity act was expanded requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for all mental health conditions.
We’ve made a lot of progress, but the fight for quality mental health treatment isn’t over. There’s a need for specialized training in the treatment of trauma and the biological model of disorder is still prevalent. Many don’t have access to care because of finances or location.
However, we all can make a difference. As we tell our stories, live our truth, and help each other, we are bringing change.