Mental health advocates ask: “How could they?”
on October 11, 2010
A group of mental health advisors to Contra Costa County have condemned last week’s political attack on Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin as “cruel” and “bigoted,” and expressed dismay at the involvement of police and fire officials, who are often a first line of contact for people with mental illness who need help.
At a meeting Friday of the Consolidated Planning Advisory Workgroup (CPAW), a group that advises the county on mental health needs, non-profit consultant Kathi McLaughlin (who said she is no relation to the mayor) said she was ashamed of the police officers who used the mayor’s mental health history to raise questions about her fitness for office.
“They should know better,” she said. “They see these people every day. This incident is telling me the police officers do not care about our mentally ill populations.”
The advisory group is planning a public response to the action taken by the mayor’s political opponents. Early in the week, rival mayoral candidate Nat Bates circulated McLaughlin’s 2003 bankruptcy record, saying he was simply passing on via email information that came to him.
The information, however, came from the political action committee Richmond First, a major contributor to Bates’ 2008 city council campaign. Richmond First Committee, which is funded by the police and firefighters unions, hired a private investigator to mine McLaughlin’s past. It posted the documents on a website called TheRealMayorGayle, saying they were evidence that “Mayor Gayle is not who we thought she was.”
The bankruptcy filing details information about McLaughlin’s mental health, saying that she was, at the time, “unable to complete her Masters degree due to her severe condition,” and that more than a decade ago, she was hospitalized twice for her illness. It also specified her treatment—antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
“To come home and turn on the TV and see Channel Five putting a mic in her face and questioning her about mental health issues—it was a debilitating stigmatizing moment,” said Brenda Crawford, who directs the nonprofit Mental Health Consumer Concerns. “Why would anyone treat anyone so cruelly?”
Several speakers said they support McLaughlin in this situation despite not sharing her politics.
“I would speak out for anyone in this situation, no matter the political persuasion. To single her out was among other things very cruel and she didn’t deserve it,” said Kathi McLaughlin. “To attack someone’s qualifications for a disability—would you do the same to a diabetic or someone with a physical disability?”
CPAW itself is an example of how mental health concerns have gained ground as a medical category in the public mind. The committee was formed when voters approved Prop 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which funded mental health services with a tax on the most wealthy. The act also mandated that consumers—people who’ve suffered from mental illness—give input on how to spend the millions of dollars raised by the Act.
Members of CPAW have experience with mental illness either through their profession, or their own illness or a family member’s, and said the questions raised about Mayor McLaughlin affect many people with with mental illness.
“They have lived through hardships and have maintained hope of a life with significance,” said Suzanne Tavano, deputy director of Mental Health for Contra Costa Health Services and a member of the advisory group. “It’s very painful when they see someone who has walked a similar path and achieved her goals to be taken down in public. It dashes hope.”
Some advisory group members who weren’t at the meeting sent statements addressing the isolation people with mental health problems experience when the illness is used to generate public shame.
“The release of her past mental health history, intended as an attack by her current campaign opponents, is both cynical and bigoted,” wrote Roberto Román, a mental health educator of Contra Costa Mental Health Services. “It conveys the dark message that those confronting mental health issues cannot overcome the obstacles they face and attain productivity and leadership as members of society.”
Perhaps the biggest blow to members of the group was the fact that, working through their unions, public safety officials—who carry a great deal of moral authority—paid for and directed the attack.
The Contra Costa Mental Health Services Division co-sponsors a week-long, voluntary training for police officers, who regularly interact with people with emotional and psychological disabilities. The Richmond Police Department participates in these trainings.
Brenda Crawford said police involvement in the campaign against the mayor made her doubt their good intentions. “It does bring into question the humanity of the fire and police departments,” said Crawford. “I don’t feel I could trust them, knowing they would do this because of some political disagreement with the mayor.”
Richmond Firefighters Association President Jim Russey issued a statement last week explaining the union’s involvement. “You don’t go from being jobless because of psychiatric issues to becoming the mayor of one of the largest cities in California and in the nation,” the statement read. “If the voters had known the truth about the mayor from the beginning, they would have never elected her.”
About 15 million Americans suffer from clinical depression in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Clinical depression can range from mild to severe, and women are about twice as likely as men to develop some form of it. The World Health Organization found that in 2004, major depression was the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.
There is no known single cause of depression, said Lori Larks, division manager for the Department of Aging and Adult Services. “In the course of a life there’s teen depression, postpartum depression, depression from marriage, divorce, death, genetics, getting old,” said Parks. “Just about everyone hits it at some point. What we call mental illness is really just a part of life.”
Mayoral candidate Nat Bates has tried to distance himself from his decision to release the documents. “It is most unfortunate such a situation has occurred,” he wrote in an email, “but in politics, anything and everything goes.”
The advisory group wants the city to revisit policies to decrease stigma and discrimination about mental health problems, and plans to propose a policy item tomorrow at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
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