by Kate Fitch, CMWN volunteer
Representative Tim Murphy published an opinion piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that deeply, deeply concerns me. You may remember Murphy as the author of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. The proposed Act, in my opinion, is a huge step backward from how far we have come in patient rights, evidence-based treatment modalities, and public mental healthcare in general. While I do acknowledge that there is still a long way to go, this Act is not the answer to existing problems.
The first thing that concerned me was his tying of the need for mental healthcare overhaul to the recent tragedy in Oregon. No one is arguing that the amount of mass shootings in America over the past several years is a problem. However, let’s look at the facts. Mass shootings are extensively covered by the media, but they account for less than 1% of all gun-related homicides. Yes, mass shootings are a horrible thing, and I wish that they would end. But using a mass shooting, which is an incredibly rare occurrence, as a major pillar supporting his so-called “overhaul” of mental healthcare is simply foolish. People with mental illness are far, far more likely to use a gun to harm themselves than to harm anyone else. People with mental illness are far, far more likely to be harmed by a gun used by someone else than to harm anyone else.
He goes on to explain what the current mental healthcare system looks like. He accuses the current system of being “anti-patient, anti-family, and anti-medical care.” As a former patient of multiple hospitals, I take issue with this accusation. The only thing anti-family about public mental healthcare treatment is privacy laws and the upholding of patient rights. If a patient does not want to involve their family in their treatment, they have every right to do so. Because if a person does not want to involve another person in their life, they have the right to do so. Just because someone is mentally ill does not mean that their right to choose who knows about and is involved with their medical care is invalid. As far as “anti-medical care?” Yes, you have the right to refuse medication unless you are actively a danger to yourself or others. Why? Because a person has the right to choose whether or not they consume a medication whose side effects may outweigh their benefit. “Anti-patient?” Yes, the increase in forced hospitalization, violation of privacy rights, and failure to provide adequate treatment beyond medication that he proposes in his bill is indeed anti-patient. These are things that we need to fix, not encourage.
He says that people with serious mental illness are ten times more likely to end up in a prison cell than a hospital bed. Yes, that is unfortunate. However, the answer to that problem is not to force people with mental illness into treatment that they don’t want at a level that is unnecessarily restrictive. That is imprisonment, just with more medication. What works is heavy community outreach, not collecting people with mental illness and putting them in inpatient (or court-ordered outpatient) settings against their will. The deinstitutionalization movement and development of protection and advocacy lawyers he seems to regard with disdain were positive steps in civil rights. In Murphy’s world, nobody is forced to get treatment for an illness besides the mentally ill. Why are we an exception to basic liberty? Because 1% of all gun violence makes him believe that we are wholly dangerous as a group?
Finally, his lies about the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which he wants to effectively abolish, are appalling. Yes, the SAMHSA supports patient rights and privacy. That does not make it “anti-treatment,” it makes it informed of the fact that forced treatment and violation of patient privacy are not effective means of treating people with mental illness. Yes, SAMHSA supports total, whole-person wellness initiatives and not just medication. Why? Because holistic treatment that addresses all aspects of wellness improve overall health outcomes of people with mental illness. Period. It is not a waste of money to help people with mental illness increase their quality of life. However, Murphy seems to believe that an unmedicated person with mental illness is more dangerous than an unhappy, unfulfilled, disconnected person with mental illness.
The Murphy Bill is a misguided step toward improving the mental health of our nation, and yesterday’s commentary makes that even more glaring. Click here to sign the petition against the bill.