Mental health advocates, state reps collaborate on change in forum

By Allison Thomasseau
The Daily Free Press
February 10, 2011

Massachusetts mental health advocacy groups emphasized the need to implement a mental health commission, build peer respites for recovery and start peer run programs at a public forum at the Boston Public Library on Wednesday.

Advocacy groups met with state representatives to discuss current legislation being debated and to share ideas concerning the current mental health care system at the forum.

Massachusetts People/Patients Organized for Wellness Empowerment and Rights, a grassroots movement run by and for people with mental health illnesses, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a non-profit advocacy group, discussed major issues within mental health care services with the representatives.

The peer programs advocacy groups discussed would include “safe houses” for mental health patients “to learn skills for managing crises,” according to a handout from the National Empowerment Center given out at the discussion.

Peer run programs give mental health patients a mentor who has been through psychiatric care themselves to give the patient hope and guidance, according to the pamphlet.

The state is planning to pilot one peer respite in Massachusetts and the department might add two more if it is successful, said State Representative Ruth Balser.

“We need to understand the role of mental health and the need for services and where we’re not meeting our needs,” said Rep. Liz Malia. “A commission will help bring the community to the table and start the dialogue with the community.”

NAMI also promoted the recovery model verses the medical model, which has been used in hospitals for many years.

The recovery model concerns “building relationships between doctors and patients” and puts consumers at the center of healthcare, as opposed to strictly treating a disease, said Cathy Levin, the Special Project Coordinator at the National Empowerment Center.

The groups also advocated for certain legislation that the state is in the process of discussing. One bill promotes allowing mental health patients access to fresh air and the other bill prevents harsh treatment and the prosecution of a psychiatric patient who has become violent.

The state representatives adamantly supported the bill promoting daily access to the outdoors.

“Every human being deserves the right and ability to enjoy the outdoors and a safe place to be able to commune with nature and be with friends,” said Rep. Gloria Fox (D – Massachusetts). “We should have the right to fresh and safe and clean air.”

However, the representatives were hesitant about funding and revenue for the programs they wanted to implement.

“One of the challenges here is implementing from a revenue and resources point of view,” said state Sen. James Eldridge. “In addition to passing legislation like this, need to support the revenue portion of it…We need to hear that cry very loud and clear, because there have been 20 to 25 percent cuts, and we can’t sustain any more cuts.”

The most probable way to fund the programs is through a raised state income tax and earmarking funds specifically for mental health care, Eldridge said.

Mental health patients want to be treated as human beings and through the legislation, that would be possible.

“We are people first,” said Howard Trachtman, an M-POWER activist.

“You label jars, not people. We are individuals. We get called the mentally ill, and that’s not right.”

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