As you read this, people with lived experience all around the country are mobilizing to educate our federal legislators about why the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646) should be defeated. Education is the key.
As executive director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, I am issuing a call to action. We need to ramp up our efforts before this backward piece of legislation becomes law. We need to get in touch with our legislators and their staffs, contact the media, make some noise! We need to exercise the proverbial strength in numbers. And we need all of this now!
On June 15, the House Energy & Commerce Committee voted unanimously, 53 to 0, to send this bill, a/k/a the (Tim) Murphy Bill— [not to be confused with Senate legislation proposed by Senator Chris Murphy]—to be voted on by the full House of Representatives. I was there with three comrades-in-arms. Four of us in a sea of people recruited by NAMI and the Treatment Advocacy Center. There were people there who had flown in just to be at this event. The four of us who were there, and all the rest of us who have lived experience of the mental health system, got steamrolled. In a big way.
Rep. Murphy calls the bill “mental health reform”—but for those of us in the trenches, with a lot at stake, it is not reform, but regression.
I am proud to be part of our movement for social justice. But, as I sat there, I wondered why we were so easily outmaneuvered. And I realized that, as the saying goes, “Size matters.” NAMI has the capacity to issue an action alert and get thousands of people to act. That alone makes the difference. The sheer volume of calls matters.
The opposition has intimate relationships with so many legislators on the E&C Committee. I kept hearing, “I’ve received tens of thousands of calls from family members in distress…” Although there are great activists in our movement who also have built such relationships, we need so many more.
Another problem: Our public relations capacity needs to grow. At one point, Rep. Murphy had entered into the record 40 different news articles to support the premises of his bill. Wow. That PR machine is mighty sophisticated. They’ve gotten sensationalized coverage of mad-murderers-on-the-loose, stories of families in agony, stories of how the mental health system is failing all Americans by not locking us away and depriving us of our civil liberties, and much more. We do not have the PR capacity to match that. Not nearly. Not yet. And, by God, we need to change that.
We do not have enough people rallied to our cause. “I’ve heard from tens of thousands of family members who have been…in pain…etc….” I know we could match that number, if only we could ignite the passion and relentless dedication to make it happen: support group by support group, peer-run service by peer-run service, town by town, county by county, state by state. Every single person matters. Every. Single. Person. Matters.
I can walk the halls of Congress and try all kinds of ways to persuade. But they won’t listen to me alone. Your elected representatives from Congress need to hear from YOU before (and after) they will truly listen to me. I am not their constituent; you are. Your voice matters so much more than mine. I merely amplify and clarify and put a face to the cause. You are what matters most. Your voice matters. But only if you use it.
I take very seriously my responsibility to represent you to our elected officials. Even when we lose. Especially when we lose. And losing can sometimes be what it takes to galvanize people into action. I have used losing a legislative battle to win great success in the past; more than once. I know it is possible.
Our cause remains righteous. We will not compromise the lives of those among us who need the most help: people whose lives are filled with desperation, who need someone to shine a spotlight on their plight. Plus all the thousands and thousands among us who have found recovery, hope, strength, a life worth living on their own terms. So many of us have persevered through terrible, daunting odds. We are the evidence, indeed.
My hat is off to all of you who have labored tirelessly in our movement—some of you for decades, and many, if not most, of you as volunteers! But our movement is badly resource-starved. We need to change that. The future demands it of us.
We need to get the grassroots ready, at a moment’s notice, to act when H.R. 2646 hits the floor of the House. My call to action is linked twice above; here it is again.
Everybody needs to call their representatives in the House to say that we oppose everything about H.R. 2646. Organize calling parties! All members of the House are fair game. As you know, Speaker Paul Ryan called recess early because of the sit-in organized by House Democrats to demand a vote on gun control. But they will return. In the meantime, you can contact their district offices.
We also need to focus on the Senate, which will be considering S. 2680 very soon. You will need to call your Senators and tell them to pass S. 2680 without amendments. They will likely be pressured to add/amend language from H.R. 2646 if we allow it. We need to tell them that H.R. 2646 is unacceptable in its entirety.
The Senate version of “mental health reform,” S. 2680, is much less toxic than the House version. It is not what we want. However, it is the very best we can get at this moment. But it will not happen magically. It will be hard-fought.
Don’t get discouraged; get determined.
We will likely need to address whatever happens with S. 2680 and H.R. 2646 in conference committee. If we are lucky the bills will wait until the fall, and then who knows? But it is just as likely that the Senate and House will need to hash out differences between the two bills very shortly. We need our issues to be aired.
If you are prepared to act on the above, it will help. Everything helps. Don’t just sit and read this. Don’t succumb to feeling like our views do not matter and that we are too marginalized to be heard. We have to make our views matter. They won’t matter if we don’t insist.
I’ve been looking for data about our grassroots muscle power: how strong is it? After sitting through the markup for HR 2646, I learned that the current grassroots pulse is not good. We need lots more muscle power. We need more people who care about our rights, our needs, our values.
In order to effect real change, we need to start early and stay vigilant throughout the entire legislative process. We need to get better organized.
- More people recruited into action: voter registration and transportation, candidates’ forums, developing ongoing relationships with elected officials…over the long haul, not on a crisis basis! We are matched against thousands of family members. We do not have the numbers. But I believe we can get them. With everybody helping.
- More advocacy training.
- Better resources and help for grassroots organizing to do the above.
- A really good PR machine.
- Serious fundraising to do the above.
June 15 was truly a wake-up call. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves and opt out of the political process. We need to get our own issues and values out there.
Beginning next January, we will have a new Congress. Let’s get ready for it now.
We must use this time to recruit, educate, organize and activate our grassroots. It’s the only way. It’s the way the civil rights movement made an impact. It’s the way the women’s movement made an impact. It’s the way the LGBTQ community has made an impact. President Obama just designated the area around the Stonewall Inn in New York City as a national monument to LGBT rights. Where is our monument? We need voices. Insistent voices. Not just on a crisis basis. All the time.
So many courageous leaders started this movement decades ago and made tremendous progress. I bow my head in sorrow, but with such respect, for Pat Risser, whose death on June 15 diminished our movement and who was one amazing soul among many who rang the bell of justice. We all are standing on the shoulders of giants. Let’s honor their legacy with action, tenacity, discipline, clear hearts and raised voices. We want—no, we insist upon—change.
This isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of a new phase. I feel so honored to be part of this movement. I believe we have the potential to make significant changes and to advance our agenda, which was given lip service in the 1960s but has never been adequately funded or supported politically to do what we know works. It’s on us. Nobody will do it for us. We have sympathizers, but it’s on us.
Despite the discouraging news on June 15, I feel strongly that our time has come. We need to rise to the occasion. We need t show resolve that the violation of our rights and the maintenance of a coercive, traumatizing, horribly over-medicalized, too-late-to-divert-crises system are unacceptable. We cannot back down. We cannot be cowed. We are survivors. We need to be better involved in the process of democracy.
As the great labor leader Joe Hill famously said, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
Thank you to all of you who did act, who did make the calls, who did your part in making a difference. You are heroes. And I ask that each of you go out tomorrow and find at least three to five more heroes.
It is easy to give in to being discouraged. But I now have more resolve than ever. I’m ready to fight. And I’m so grateful to all of you for being there on the barricades with me.