As We Begin this New Century

NEW YORK CITYVOICES: January/February 2000

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By Ken Steele, Publisher

Nineteen hundred and ninety nine was a good year for us. The entire decade of the 1990's, in fact, seems to be the most enlightening period in all of mental health history. I know many of you wonder how I can come to such a conclusion when stigma remains alive and well and the problems of the homeless mentally ill grow in number and complexity. Some of you think I'm wrong, pointing out one great American city said to be the most enlightened in our American civilization, which, at the end of this decade, saw politicians and police criminalizing the mentally ill and even making it against the law to be homeless. I can't argue with any of you. All of this and even more forms of discrimination against us are unfortunately all too true.

But many other things have happened this past year and decade. In 1999, we saw the first-ever White House Conference on Mental Health, followed closely by the first Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health. Then, on December 17, 1999, President Clinton signed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act. This new law is the first major effort by Congress to put an end to the unfair employment rules of the Social Security Administration, which has prevented so many of us who receive SSI/SSDI from working. Mental Health Parity is the law in 28 states today. In New York and other states trends of severe cuts in mental health budgets for community services and treatment were reversed entirely, and in some cases, with significant funding increases.

The 1990's also brought new atypical anti-psychotic medications like Risperdal in 1994, along with Clozaril, Zyprexa and Sero-quel, which have aided many of us with paranoid schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses to live successfully for the first time because of the effectiveness and minimal side effects of these drugs. Many consumers like myself have new lives after decades of institutionalization and the newly diagnosed like New York City Voices Managing Editor Dan Frey are having their lives only briefly interrupted. They quickly return back to school and work.

In 1994, we began to register to vote in New York City and organize a voter project. In 1995, we started helping one another go to the polls. In 1998, the Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc. (MHANYS) began to take our voter empowerment project statewide. In June 1999, the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) announced it would take our voter project national. In October 1999, our national mental health voter drive won New York Times front page and national section notice. In December 1999, the national leaders of NMHA and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) agreed to work together to bring voter empowerment to mental health consumers in communities nationwide. Soon we will become a constituency of consequence to candidates running for office everywhere in the U.S.

As we begin the new century, I look back at the 1990's and I see how far we have come. I have a vision of where we are going. We are the last great civil rights movement of this past century. In the next one, we will have the science, the organized voting strength and the means to leave our ghettos of isolation behind us and finally join with the mainstream community where we will be able to live as independent individuals and not as a group of people known by the frightening names of illnesses.

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