Member Spotlight: Lisa
Each month, we invite DBC members with a connection to our theme to share their personal experiences with us. Interested in sharing your story with the DBC community? Email us at email@example.com.
Please introduce yourself to the DBC members.
Hi all! I'm Lisa, an attorney in Austin, Texas. During the day, I work at a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. By night, I'm a dog mom to three pups (Roxy, Ranger, and Luna), a yoga teacher in training, an avid Red Sox fan, and a reader who blogs about her reading life at LisaAnnReads.com. You can also find me Instagram at @imlisaann.
Why is this month’s topic, mental health, near and dear to your heart?
For the last nine years (since graduating law school) I've been an attorney at a disability rights nonprofit. The team I'm on goes into large institutions that serve people with mental illness and people with intellectual disabilities. My agency has special authority under federal law to monitor these institutions for abuse, neglect, and rights violations and to take appropriate remedies, so I have the ability to walk around these facilities unaccompanied and simply talk to the people receiving treatment there. In my day-to-day life as a supervisor of the advocates and attorneys on my team (as well as having my own caseload), I'm confronted with ways the system has limited people with disabilities and been far too restrictive of their rights. Even where forced treatment may be necessary (which should only happen after the person has been provided with due process!), individuals with mental illness still have dignity and deserve to be treated with respect. Too often, this isn't the case and we see people with disabilities be inappropriately denied the ability to do things like have fresh air breaks (their only chance to go outside) or to use the telephone. We also see facility staff cut corners on things like use of restraint, seclusion, and emergency medications, so people are placed in restraint chairs, secluded, and given involuntary injections of psychotropic medications even when their behavior doesn't rise to the standard of harming themselves or others. Many times people with mental illness aren't able to effectively advocate for themselves, either because their condition prevents them from doing so or because they are simply outnumbered by the other members of their treatment team. At that point, our advocates and attorneys get to amply the person's voice to make sure their concerns are addressed, their rights are respected, and that corrective action results when their rights are violated.
I also have several dear friends who have mental illnesses. Knowing what they go through day-to-day, to choose to stay and fight leaves me in awe of them. One of the things that many people don't understand is frankly how awful some of the treatments for mental illness are. The drugs can make you feel awful, result in significant weight gain, and cause serious and sometimes permanent side effects like diabetes and tremors. It is no small thing to have a mental illness and receive treatment.
What are your favorite books that address mental health? Why?
My favorite memoir on mental health is called The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks. The stereotypical picture we have of someone with schizophrenia is someone who isn't successful--they're barely scraping by and may be homeless. Elyn Saks is a well-respected and extremely successful law professor. She also happens to have paranoid schizophrenia. While the book is a little log, I found her story extremely compelling--both as a description of what it is like to live with schizophrenia and as evidence that a good life is possible when people have the supports they need to be healthy. For fiction, I thought The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer was well done. It too follows someone with schizophrenia. I thought it was a quick read, fairly accurate, and respectfully done.
Do you find there is a stigma around mental health in our culture? How has this impacted your experience?
My first two years I worked on a fellowship with domestic violence survivors with disabilities, which frequently meant representing mothers with mental illness and trying to convince courts they were safer parents than their abusive spouse. The mere fact that the mother had a mental illness--with no evidence of specific incidents of neglect, etc.--made it far, far harder than it should have been to convince courts they were the safer parent. I had opposing parties and attorneys argue (and courts believe) that because my client had a mental illness it meant she was untruthful. We still have this come up in what I do now, with the child protection system taking children from parents with disabilities. It is maddening how a mere diagnosis informs opinions on one's ability to parent.
Is there anything else you’d like our members to know?
There are many organizations out there that are involved with issues related to mental illness. It is important to recognize where these organizations are coming from. Some, like NAIMI, are particularly good at supporting family members but are less good at supporting individuals who want to refuse treatment--which is absolutely fine. One organization can't be all things to all people. I mention this though to say that it is always important to think about where an organization is coming from, so that we don't lose the voices of the people with mental illness themselves or assume that one voice of someone with mental illness speaks for all people with mental illness.
We also talk in the system about the ideas of expressed interest and best interest. "Expressed interest" being what the person expresses they want and "best interest" being what is best for that person, usually as determined by the group of involved professionals or a court. I can think that certain treatments or choices are in the "best interest" of someone--but at the end of the day, it isn't my body. I'm not the one whose body feels awful from the side effects of these drugs. So long as the person isn't substantially harming themselves or someone else, they have dignity of risk--they get to make choices consistent with their expressed wishes, even if they are choices we might think are not good choices. We allow people without mental illness to retain their autonomy and make bad choices every day--even though it is hard, people with mental illness deserve this same dignity.