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Mental health symposium irks, angers disabled

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Monday January 14, 2002

Approximately a dozen mental health patients and their advocates picketed a major symposium on mental health and public policy held at the UC Berkeley campus on Saturday, citing a familiar slogan of the disabled community – “nothing about us without us.”  

The California Network of Mental Health Clients and several independent patients protested their exclusion from the organization of the event entitled “Coping with Mental Illness and Crafting Public Policy.” It was put together by the UC’s Institute for Governmental Studies, and included researchers from UCLA and UCSF. 

Activists also picketed outside UCLA, where several of the presenters at the conference delivered their papers to the Berkeley audience through teleconferencing. 

Fred Martin, Jr., a visiting IGS scholar who organized the symposium, said that it was a first-of its-kind effort to introduce lawmakers and other government figures to cutting-edge research into mental illness. 

‘This is a world-class conference,” he said. “It was put together to bring together the best academic minds in the field.” 

“The research shows that there is a possibility of finding a way to prevent these terrible conditions. Think of the effect that would have on people’s lives.” 

Scientists presented papers ranging from the diagnosis of schizophrenia to the treatment of dual-diagnosed patients -- those that have a drug addiction and a mental disorder. 

However, protesters outside Wheeler Auditorium said that no conference on mental health should be attempted without participation from those who suffer from mental illness. 

“We are the experts about how we feel and what goes on in treatment programs,” said Sally Zinman, executive director of the California Network of Mental Health Clients. “The academic analysis of these programs should involve us.” 

Zinman said that after several months of lobbying to be included in the conference, organizers agreed last week to put Dave Hosseini, executive director of a Sacramento-based patient advocacy group, on one of the day’s panels. 

When his time came, Hosseini delivered an impassioned speech that called for an increased voice for mental health patients. 

“It is important that policy makers listen to the people that have the most experience - and the most interest -- in improving mental health services,” he said. 

He also spoke against “Laura’s Law,” an impending bill in the California state legislature. The law would expand, to some degree, the number of state residents that could be treated for mental illnesses against their will. 

“(The bill) is divisive, ill-advised, poorly thought-out and frightening to those of us who do remember the past and are afraid to repeat it,” said Hosseini. 

Dr. Alexander Young, a psychiatrist and researcher who was chairing he panel from Los Angeles, noted that of all the groups interested in increasing funding for mental health treatment -- doctors, academics and lawmakers -- patients’ groups have been the most successful in lobbying the government for these programs. 

Young said that everyone would benefit if scientists were able to unite with patients’ groups when it came time to ask legislators for funding.