GUEST VIEWPOINT: Eugene recognizes mental health patients have rights, too
Source: The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
Two famous authors from Lane County — Opal Whiteley and Ken Kesey — had significant interactions with the mental health system. Whiteley, who portrayed the woods around where she grew up near Cottage Grove as a fairyland, ended up in a psychiatric institution in England for more than 40 years. Kesey, whose novels are interwoven with what amount to love poems to rural Lane County, used the authoritarianism he witnessed while working inside a psychiatric institution as a metaphor for conventional society in his bestseller, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
I like to think this coincidence has something to do with our closeness to what’s left of America’s wilderness. When I swim in an Oregon mountain lake surrounded by ancient trees, I feel alive in mysterious ways that do seem “northwest of normal,” as our popular local slogan puts it. Our civic “mad pride” contributed to the recent passage by the city of Eugene of the first and only municipal resolution I know of that affirms support for human rights in mental health.
Today, the 61st anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a good day to celebrate that resolution’s approval.
When the media cover those of us with psychiatric labels, it’s often about the small fraction who are violent; but there are many Lane County citizens with mental health histories who are contributing positively every day, such as psychiatric survivor Hugh Massengill. The resolution emerged from a process that began in 2004 when the Eugene Human Rights Commission adopted the issue as a priority because of encouragement from Massengill, who was then a commissioner.
Guided by advocate Carmen Urbina, the city sponsored a series of public forums where citizens diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities dialogued with mental health professionals, judges, family members and the public, culminating in a large conference at the University of Oregon in 2006.
This momentum launched the “Opal Network” in May 2007. Named after the author, these quarterly meetings bring together all who seek to amplify the often-ignored voice of mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors.
The local cross-disability organization, Lane Independent Living Alliance, especially LILA counselor Bjo Ashwill, spearheaded this innovative coalition, which is gaining national attention.
Holly LeMasurier, a human rights analyst for the city of Eugene’s Equity and Human Rights Center, helped distill the conclusions of these past five years of grass-roots community organizing into Resolution 4989, which the City Council unanimously passed on Oct. 26. The resolution affirms the human right of citizens to have more empowering choices in the mental health system, including more nondrug alternatives, for complete recovery.
Psychiatric survivor advocate Tracey “TC” Dumas spoke in front of the Eugene City Council to thank its members.
Dumas, who survived forced electroshock as a teenager and went on to earn her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, said, “I’ve been in the mental health system for 35 years. Many people are not offered choices. I just want to say ‘thank you,’ especially to you Mayor Kitty Piercy, who wanted to see this resolution happen.”
Ron Unger, coordinator of MindFreedom Lane County, did a lot of the background work for the resolution.
He told the City Council, “I am a mental health counselor. One size does not fit all. Especially to reach young people, the mental health system needs to be much more positive and helpful. Thank you for passing this resolution.”
The resolution does not shy away from one of the most controversial topics in mental health, the over-prescription of psychiatric drugs.
One paragraph in the resolution states, “Many people determine that psychiatric medications are quite helpful for their mental and emotional conditions, and are grateful to have the opportunity to take them. Others find medications to be harmful to their health, unhelpful and/or excessively intrusive and problematic. When people seek treatment and are offered medication as the only treatment option, they may feel coerced into choosing that option. Many of the medications currently provided are typically associated with significant medical risk, are often experienced as subjectively harmful, and their long-term effectiveness remains controversial. Furthermore, there are widely researched psychosocial alternative treatments likely to be at least as effective for many, with fewer harmful effects.”
The resolution concludes by calling for two goals:
First, “All mental health service providers within the city of Eugene are encouraged to incorporate self determination and consumer choice as much as possible, with accurate information provided to consumers and to families about those choices. Special emphasis should be placed on providing diverse alternatives in treatments, including nondrug alternatives, whenever possible.”
Second, “All mental health service providers within the city of Eugene are urged to offer a full range of choices designed to assist in complete recovery.”
The independent mental health advocacy nonprofit that I direct is publicizing Resolution 4989 internationally in the hope that other cities will pass similar resolutions. I think Opal Whiteley and Ken Kesey would be proud.
David Oaks () of Eugene is director of MindFreedom International. The next Opal Network meeting is at 2 p.m. Dec. 29 at the Eugene Public Library.