Mental Health America says they’re strongly opposed to the Murphy bill. Not everyone believes it

Eds. Note – there’s no connection between the Mental Health Association of Portland and Mental Health America.

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner, July 15, 2014

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel releasing lunatics from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, 1795.  (Chains: tres Murphy bill!)

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel releasing lunatics from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, 1795. (Chains: tres Murphy bill!)

In the contentious debate surrounding HR 3717 – a package of legislative changes to the mental health system known as “the Murphy bill,” after the congressman who introduced it – national advocacy organizations have played key roles. So it wasn’t surprising to see Mental Health America mentioned in the “Stop the Murphy Bill” Facebook group, an especially active political response forum created to target the legislation.

What may be surprising is how unflattering the references were – to a group that appeared to be on their side.

Was MHA in fact on the activists’ side, staunchly against the Murphy bill?

Two statements

Mental Health America had previously voiced its opposition to the Murphy bill, especially its emphasis on Assisted Outpatient Treatment – a euphemistic term for subjecting persons to forcible treatment in their own homes.

In its earlier statement, issued Dec. 12, 2013, MHA was firm, saying in part:

“Mental Health America cannot ignore the troubling provisions included in this bill and must reject any effort that would undermine the role of consumers in their recovery.

“Mental Health America also rejects the expanded use of involuntary treatment—ignoring the rights of persons with mental health conditions to make decisions concerning their treatment or minimizing the dignity, autonomy and self-determination of persons affected by mental health conditions.”

MHA’s position seemed clear.

On June 25, however, a new MHA statement was posted on the Stop the Murphy Bill group, with the introductory comment in all caps, “FRIGHTENING.”

Murphy lovefest?

The statement that had just been posted, from MHA’s new CEO, focused on efforts to forge a compromise between Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.). In May, Barber had introduced another package of mental health reforms billed as the Democratic alternative to Murphy’s legislation; some anti-Murphy activists found Barber’s bill more palatable.

But the statement also included conciliatory, even laudatory, language when referring to Murphy. The first sentence started, “We applaud the efforts of Representative Tim Murphy…”

It went on, “In recent days, I have met with both Representatives Barber and Murphy and am impressed with their commitment…”

Impressed? Applauding him? It seemed like an MHA lovefest for Murphy, whose attitude toward any opponent – and people with mental health diagnoses in particular – had, from the outset, been nothing but sneering contempt, and whose bill threatened psychiatric survivors in a very real way.

There were other problems with the statement. But perhaps the biggest question was the fundamental one: Had MHA done a sudden 180? Were they now supporting Murphy?

A growing comment thread

On the Facebook group, under the post calling MHA’s statement “frightening” there grew a long stream of comments.

“Don’t like the sound of this.”

“This is really awful and I’m trying to find out where this consensus legislation is ….”

“I’m not sure what is being negotiated. What does MHA think will happen?”

“We need to find out more about this, I am very concerned.”

“Good luck with this. I read their position papers. Psychiatry for every man, woman, and child. Serious, serious mind control.”

And it went on.

Seeking consensus

So where, exactly, does MHA stand?

In a phone interview, Debbie Plotnick, MSS, MLSP, Senior Director of State Policy for Mental Health America, clarified the group’s official position. MHA, she said, still opposes the Murphy bill.

“Mental Health America is very much against the tone and tenor of the Murphy bill. We are against dismantling SAMHSA. We are against putting in another layer of bureaucracy [and] the cuts to Protection and Advocacy that are in the Murphy bill. Nothing at all has changed in our position.”

Plotnick said MHA’s efforts to find consensus aim to keep what’s worth saving from both the Murphy and Barber bills.

“What we are in favor of is what we have always been in favor of – the parts of the Murphy bill that everyone supports, like the Garrett Smith Suicide Prevention Act, more training for first responders, more money for Mental Health First Aid…We have always been in favor of these things, whether they exist in [other legislation] or they exist in the Murphy bill.”

“We are 100 percent opposed”

What MHA is not in favor of, according to Plotnick, are problems in the bill including imposition of the medical model and evidence-based treatment only.

“Taking only a medical model approach [and] having only evidence-based practices — Well, the medical model isn’t necessarily an evidence-based practice! It’s the usual, standard practice, but that doesn’t make it evidence-based. And if you were to have only evidence-based practices, you would never have innovation. You would never move forward in finding new things that work.”

MHA has not changed its position on the Murphy bill, she said.

“We absolutely are fighting against those things we know will be detrimental, such as [defunding] SAMHSA and Protection and Advocacy organizations, the requirement that things have a medical model.

“We are 100 percent opposed to this.”

Not buying it

Despite the assurances, not everyone believes it.

Lauren Tenney, PhD, adjunct assistant professor and adjunct lecturer at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and an activist on the Stop the Murphy Bill Facebook group, is one of the doubters.

“My initial response is I don’t see how MHA is opposed to the Murphy Bill,” Tenney says. “The Barber bill is no better, so any compromise between the two is not going to benefit anyone but the psychiatric industries.”

As for MHA’s insistence it is anti-Murphy bill, Tenney says flatly, “I don’t buy it.” She adds, “I think the statements [MHA’s CEO] made are frightening and misleading.”

Careful compromise

Others are more open to at least the theoretical benefits of compromise.

Joseph Rogers, chief advocacy officer of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, past board member of Mental Health America, and an activist on the Facebook group, says, “MHA is trying to get movement in Congress. They hope Murphy will drop the bad stuff and move on things they think will help. They have been trying this tactic for some time [with] no real change.”

On the Barber bill, he says, “I thought it was good the Democrats put a bill up to stop Democrats from signing on with Murphy. I don’t see the problems others see with Dem bill. I am not anti-system, though, like some on list are. They think all ‘system’ leads to oppression. I think we need to reform and protect rights, not abolish.”

“What we need is a course correction”

Rogers continues with a note of caution.

“I am concerned that the inside-the-beltway types like to make deals – not so much MHA, but they all want to see more action from Congress. When you make deals, you have give and take,” Rogers says. “I am concerned about what will be given.”

Tenney sums up her opposition to Murphy – and to the system:

“With zero evidence of any biological etiology and with monstrous state power, people are being subjected to psychiatry over their objection and without informed choice and informed consent.

“It is a veil that either the Murphy or Barber bills, or some combination of them, will eliminate random acts of violence and heinous crimes. What we need is a course correction in our social values, and no pill is going to do that.”