ACTIVIST Newsletter logo with ACTIVIST word displayed diagonally from bottom left to upper right
May 2006

by T.K. Small

This past January I received an urgent telephone message, from a friend who was trying to find a lawyer to help release someone from the clutches of the King's County Psychiatric Hospital. In responding to this request, I spoke with Connie Lesold, who is one of the coordinators of the Brooklyn Mental Hygiene Court monitoring project. In Brooklyn, as in many other jurisdictions, a special court has been established to address mental health issues. Connie, and the other monitors, attend these proceedings to keep track of how folks are being treated.

Despite my lack of direct experience with mental health issues, Connie suggested that simply another person, particularly an attorney with a disability, could perhaps be helpful. Since Mental Hygiene Legal Services (MHLS) had already become involved in this case, I headed to court to simply support a fellow member of the disability community that I didn't even know. What I saw that day in the Brooklyn Mental Hygiene Court has caused me to reflect on the tenuous grasp that we all have on our freedom.

As we waited for the hearing to begin, I started to see some disturbing trends in almost all of the cases that were presented. Apart from the almost complete lack of wheelchair accessibility to the courtroom, there appeared a remarkably fast rush to invoke judicial intervention in considering whether mental health services should be officially imposed.

From my limited perspective it seemed that the testimony of family members, psychiatrists and social service entities, were given more credibility. It also appeared that there was a heavy-handed, authoritarian dynamic present between those who were supposedly there to help and the people "alleged" to be mentally impaired. From a number of the court monitors I learned that in too many instances the result of these proceedings is forced treatment and medication in a psychiatric facility, and occasionally, the sanctioning of electro-conclusive therapy. It seems that once a person has some sort of "psychiatric label" the rules change dramatically.

The person in question, as mentioned earlier, ended up getting legal representation from MHLS and they did an excellent job. I am happy to report that the person is back in the community, doing just fine. But what happens to the people that are not as fortunate to get adequate legal representation?

When I first became involved in the disability rights movement in the early ‘90s, a large part of a national conference I attended was dedicated to the importance of our movement truly being represented in a cross-disability perspective. There are 54 million people with disabilities in America and our strength is only magnified when we work together. There are all sorts of clichés about "weak links in a chain" and "hands washing each other" but I especially like what Benjamin Franklin said: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."