Equal Rights for All But the Mentally Ill

Of all the groups that have faced discrimination in our country’s history, one group stands alone. People with serious mental illness are the only group in which discrimination is still not only socially acceptable, but perfectly legal. 

Unless you have experienced mental illness in your family, you may be unaware of all the ways this discrimination exists. People with brain illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are routinely denied medically necessary treatment based solely on their disability type. 

One way this happens is through laws that withhold treatment until the person has deteriorated to the point of dangerousness. When a person is experiencing a mental illness crisis, they will be turned away by the hospital unless they have threatened to harm others or have a plan to kill themselves. 

A person who does not meet the “danger” standard is left to deteriorate further. The longer psychosis is left untreated, the more damage occurs to the brain, and the worse their chances for recovery.

If a family does manage to get their loved one admitted for treatment, the person is inevitably discharged before they are medically stable. You need look no further than the daily headlines to see this play out again and again. 

Take this example: Three attacks linked to mental illness in 30 days leave five dead in Metro Detroit. Both the police and families sought treatment for the individual, and each time, they were released much too soon and with no follow-up. Not surprisingly, things ended in tragedy. 

Untreated mental illness results in danger, crime and tragedy—every day and in communities all across the country. And we let it happen over and over again. Not only does withholding treatment violate a person’s rights, but it also puts their families, the police and the public in danger. Why do we allow it?

We would never tell someone with cancer, “You are only in stage II, so we can’t treat you. Come back when it’s progressed to stage IV,” or say to a diabetic, “We can’t treat you until you are in a diabetic coma.” These scenarios are unthinkable, yet have become normalized in mental illness. 

It is morally wrong to deny treatment to any group based on their disability, so why is there an unspoken carveout for the mentally ill? Denying treatment to this group is blatant discrimination, yet it is somehow acceptable to doctors, hospital leaders, politicians and the general public. 

Why is one group of disabled people deemed less worthy than others? Is a person with autism or brain cancer more worthy than a person with schizophrenia? Is a person with Parkinson’s or dementia more valuable than a person with bipolar?

All are people with brain illnesses. All deserve the right to receive medically necessary treatment. No exceptions. 

If you believe in equal rights for people with brain illnesses, please consider joining the National Shattering Silence Coalition. NSSC speaks out about federal, state and local policies that impact adults and children living with serious brain disorders commonly referred to as “serious mental illness” and advocates for change.